Witnessing the power of hope in action: Karen Conway's story
Karen Conway first saw Right To Play’s programs in action on a playground in Accra, Ghana in 2010. Right To Play-trained teachers were leading children in a game that gave them the opportunity to imagine what they wanted to be when they grew up. Karen remembers watching the children light up as they talked about their dreams for the future.
“You saw these kids come to life. This was an extremely impoverished place. It was amazing to hear the kids talk about how they wanted to be teachers. One wanted to be a banker. You could see the game and the program opening up the space for them to dream, and to believe in those dreams.”
But when Karen looked off the playground, her mood sobered. There were dozens of children -- students of teachers who hadn’t received Right To Play training -- looking on enviously, wishing they could join in the fun. The moment made clear the incredible difference Right To Play training made in giving teachers interactive play-based approaches they could use to engage students.
“You saw these kids come to life. This was an extremely impoverished place. You could see the game and the program opening up the space for them to dream, and to believe in those dreams.”
The next leg of the trip brought Karen to a village a few hours from Accra, a stop that’s still very vivid in her mind. Ghanaian superstar footballer Michael Essien, then a Chelsea player and Right To Play ambassador, had come to the village on behalf of his foundation and with other partners to dedicate the village’s first fresh water well and flushing toilets. Families from several neighbouring villages had come to meet their local hero and participate in a friendly football tournament. Essien’s own childhood football team was there, still led by his youth coach. The energy was electric – the power of play on full display. One of the best parts of the day was that as the tournament progressed, the teams that lost weren’t force to sit on the sidelines. Instead, they had the chance to play games led by Right To Play coaches along with Michael Essien.
“The joy that was happening with these children – I had never experienced anything like that. In spite of these extreme circumstances, they just wanted to laugh and play. They had hope and joy. It was really quite dramatic and life-changing for me.”
Karen grew up in Cleveland, Ohio playing many sports, including tennis. Her husband is an avid sportsman and soccer fan, and both of their now-adult children were enrolled in sports teams from the time they were small. Her love of sport and play means that she knew firsthand that they can be transformative forces in children’s lives. When she met Right To Play founder Johann Koss in London in 2010, she was immediately inspired by his vision of protecting, educating, and empowering children who live in extremely difficult situations through the power of play. As Karen learned more about the challenges facing children around the world, her passion for the mission grew.
“So many of us just take it for granted that play is a part of childhood. But we can’t just assume that every child gets that opportunity. Whether it's because of poverty, war, trauma, or traditions, there are so many kids that just don’t get to experience the benefits of play, simply because of the situations they were born into, and that doesn’t seem fair, since no one gets to choose where they are born.”
This insight has driven Karen’s 10-year commitment to Right To Play and the children we serve. In 2012, Karen founded and chaired the Big Red Ball, a UK fundraiser that raised several millions of dollars in support of Right To Play’s mission, and connected many new supporters to the organization. She also co-founded the UK Women’s Network, a group that supported Right To Play’s gender equality programs while also giving women the opportunity to meet and support each other, helping Right To Play reach into a whole new audience of female supporters.
“What we do is not just play. It is play with a purpose. It helps educate kids and keep them safe, but also helps them to dream. To hope. It helps them know that they can rise.”
Karen was able to see some one of Right To Play’s gender equality programs in action when she travelled to Jordan in 2014 and visited two refugee settlements. The first settlement was home to newly displaced Syrians who had fled the war in their homeland. The other had been home to displaced Palestinians for generations, and now included Iraqi and Syrian refugees as well.
“In Al-baqa, there wasn’t a single span of green space anywhere. There were people who had only recently been displaced, and then there were people who had been living in this camp for generations. They were fighting for their lives in a place that seemed devoid of hope. I had the chance to see a program designed for girls. It was so empowering to see the contrast between the very difficult environment we were in and the joy, hope, and power that was in the room as the children were playing.”
An incredible commitment
Karen’s unflagging commitment to protecting, educating, and empowering children to rise above adversity has seen her take on many important roles with Right To Play. In addition to serving on the UK, US and International boards, Karen has on more than one occasion stepped in to senior strategic fundraising roles to help build the organization’s fundraising capacity during gaps in leadership.
While Karen is proud of all she has been able to do to help Right To Play grow over the past decade, she is especially pleased with the foundational and transformational relationship that she has helped the organization build with Microsoft, which has helped Right To Play establish and strengthen the systems it needs for growth.
Karen now sits on the International Board of Directors and serves as Vice Chair of the US board, where she provides key strategic guidance and continues to help raise critical program support. “Having held both volunteer and staff roles with the organization has allowed me to roll up my sleeves and really learn what we do, which has helped me be a better board member and fundraiser,” she says. “I joined the board with a specific set of skills, but I’ve been able to learn so much and to develop so many skills and so much knowledge, all of which empowers me to be a more effective advisor and ally. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to serve Right To Play and help so many children around the world. That trip to Ghana opened up a pathway for me that I never would have imagined. It’s been an incredible journey.”
Looking ahead, Karen is committed to ensuring that even more children can have access to programs that protect, educate, and empower them, and give them the hope they need to thrive. Throughout 2020, she has worked with Right To Play to ensure programs have had the support they need to adapt to the changing needs of communities. And while she knows 2020 been an incredibly difficult year for so many children around the world, she is hopeful for the future.
“What really excites me now is our vision to scale our programs to reach even more children. From there, the sky’s the limit.”
“The way we change children’s lives is absolutely critical. People may think that play is a luxury, but it is the opposite. It is fundamental to a child’s development. Every child deserves to experience the joy and benefits of play and to realize that they are worthy and capable of anything.”