The core group of each Icehearts team (10 children per team) is selected when the children are approximately six years old. Local social services, early childhood education professionals and school staff participate in building the team. New team members are recruited over a period of time and the maximum team size is 20–25 children.
The support provided by Icehearts is not limited to sports activities: having a stable and safe community consisting of the group members, a reliable mentor and the support group also plays an important role in the concept. The team mentor supports the children from preschool to adulthood in any matters related to school and family life.
Support also available at school and at home
The mentor of the Icehearts team sponsored by UPM Raflatac is physical activity advisor Riku Kauppinen. Kauppinen meets the children twice a week to improve their skills in floorball and other sports chosen by the team. Kauppinen also supports the children with their schoolwork and in their everyday lives, during both good and bad days. At the moment, the team is going through a shift from playing for fun to competing against other teams.
"Going fishing is one example of the leisure activities the children and I have done in recent years. This autumn the boys have been given more responsibility. They have had more of a say in what they want to do and when they want to attend Icehearts events — as agreed with their families, of course. This winter, the aim is to increasingly compete against other teams. Some excursions are also being planned, and the idea is that their families will also participate in these trips."
The work requires long-term commitment and includes some challenges, but it is also very rewarding.
"The boys have very different individual needs. These need to be taken into account when planning activities. When you notice that what you are doing is really working for a child, the feeling of joy is immense. The fact that we are not in any hurry is also great. I'm practically always available for the children and their parents. When you get to know the boys, you naturally grow attached to them and want to make sure that they will do well in life," Kauppinen says.
UPM Raflatac supports a group of active floorballers
The team sponsored by UPM Raflatac consists of 17 boys born in 2007 or 2008. The team trains in Tesoma, where Raflatac's labelstock factory has been running since the 1970's.
"We wanted to support a team in Tesoma district since we have been part of life in the area for almost 50 years and we want to invest in developing and maintaining the area," explains Juha Virmavirta from UPM Raflatac.
According to the Icehearts concept, the first couple of years are spent playing, getting to know each other and learning how to work as a team. After this, the team selects a team sport that it then trains for and competes in. The sport is taken seriously, but the main point is to do something together and support the individual development of each team member. In this case, the sport is floorball.
"In our activities, everyone plays. If someone can't keep up, they are not deserted, but instead treated in the same way as the best player on the team. It seems cruel how children sometimes get dropped from teams at a young age. Not everyone can be a floorball champion, but that's not the aim of our activities. We just want the boys to be the champions of their own lives," Kauppinen says.
The city pays the salary of the Icehearts mentor, but the teams also need funding from sponsors so that they can purchase sports equipment, for example. Last spring, UPM Raflatac purchased floorball kits for the Tesoma team in time for the players' very first match.
Making mistakes is part of life
The Icehearts concept has rapidly gained popularity and there are now 13 teams in Finland. The approach has also received recognition and various awards, including the 2016 European Prize for Social Integration Through Sport in the "Integration of populations at risk" category. The prize was designed to support activities that promote social integration and values such as respect and tolerance through sport.
"Icehearts plays an important role in each boy's life. I believe that the main benefits of the project are the long term support it provides and the opportunity to participate in physical activities. It's also important for the children to have someone who listens to them, gives them advice and helps them at school.
Icehearts provides an environment where you can openly be yourself without being judged. Even if you make a mistake, you will not be left on your own. Belonging to the same team for 12 years ensures that the children receive long term support both at school and in other areas of their lives. The boys gain life-long friends and hopefully adopt a way of life that will help them long into the future," Kauppinen explains.
The benefits of the preventive model used in the Icehearts concept include smooth cooperation between different municipal services and a flexible and effective approach. The activities increase individual wellbeing, provide economic savings, reduce the number of care orders, support schools in their educational duty, promote integration and prevent pupils from dropping out of school.