• Empowering children through sports

    Croatian project Allegria aims to make sport accessible to children from low income families. Read here about how a strong-willed Croatian set out to improve the life of her community.

    With a serious dose of determination and lots of good will, the one-time European Taekwondo champion and aspiring social entrepreneur Mateja Pančelat (25) made it all the way to the finals of the Social Impact Award in Zagreb last year. Even though her idea of using sport to empower underprivileged children wasn’t awarded a prize, the setback hasn’t affected her faith in her project or her convictions.

    Inspired by her own roots

    Growing up in a rural village, Mateja Pančelat had no access to sport till she turned 15, when she finally started to train in Taekwondo. “My parents had a tough life working in agriculture and had neither money nor time to enroll me in the sport course I wanted,” she laments. With passion and relentless effort, she nevertheless earned her black belt and won an international competition in 2009, a path that forged her character and conviction.

    Through her experience, Mateja came to believe that sport nurtures a positive mind-set by teaching children to be self-confident and persistent. “My goal is to use sport as a ‘remedy’ for underprivileged children, especially those in rural areas, to help them grow up in better conditions and give them equal chances in life” she says.

    Venturing into entrepreneurship

    The idea of connecting social entrepreneurship with sport came to Mateja during workshops at Impact HUB Zagreb, where she learned about the first Croatian Social Impact Award competition. “We didn’t have such student competitions in Croatia and social entrepreneurship isn’t very popular here yet, so it was a big learning opportunity,” she explains.

    After extensively researching legal matters related to the sensitive topic of poverty, Mateja pitched her concept of Allegria – an organisation that would organise sport camps for tourists and corporate workout packages in order to subsidise athletic training for rural children. Her idea got to the finals, but did not convince the jury in the end. “I did the whole project all by myself and I think this was bad idea: my SIA journey taught me that having a team is a better way to develop a plan,” she concedes.

    Pursuing her goal

    After graduating in sport management at the University of Zagreb last summer, Mateja is now conducting research with the Red Cross and local schools about children in need. She is still eager to realise her project. “People praised my idea and I received a lot of positive comments, especially because the situation in Croatia is on a downward slope, so there is a lot of work to be done,” she says. “We need to become more aware of others in our community, it will help to improve the quality of our lives,” she concludes.

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