skip to content
23 Aug 2018
Olympism in Action Forum
Olympism in Action Forum

#UnitedBy building a better world - Gabriela Matus Bonilla

Gabriela Matus Bonilla is the first Young Change-Maker from Guatemala. Matus Bonilla is passionate about the relationship between sport and community development and making Guatemala a more inclusive country. Through the YCM+ Programme, she has teamed up with United Play to create United Play Guatemala, an organisation dedicated to bringing new opportunities through sport to children in vulnerable communities.


In the run-up to the Olympism in Action Forum in Buenos Aires (5-6 October 2018), we looked at groups and individuals who, inspired by the power of sport to contribute to a better world, have used their initiative to organise projects and programmes to effect change at all levels.

More stories
How we do

Gabriela Matus Bonilla was a track and field athlete between college and starting graduate school, but when she attended the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in Nanjing, China, in 2014, she did not compete as a Young Olympian. Instead, Matus Bonilla attended as the first Young Change-Maker chosen to represent Guatemala.

“I wasn’t a professional runner, but it was through athletics after college and a local team that I learned about the Young Ambassadors Programme, now known as Young Change-Makers,” says Matus Bonilla. “It was so new, no one knew much about it, but I knew it was something I wanted to do. I was excited about the opportunity for professional development and mentorship, so I decided to apply.”

At the YOG, Matus Bonilla was involved with the Culture and Education Programme, guiding athletes and coaches through the different activities and seminars. She shared experiences with athletes who had started foundations and social initiatives in their hometowns, and was inspired to get more involved in her own community. Matus Bonilla, who has a postgraduate degree in accessibility and universal design, has always been passionate about vulnerable communities, and was excited to find a programme that could tie together her interests.

“I knew I wanted to do more, so I applied to the YCM+ Programme,” she says. “I met with a friend, Juan Diego, and he talked to me about the United Play Project.” The YCM+ Programme invites Young Change-Makers to apply for funding to start their own social projects that address a problem in their communities. United Play is an initiative based in Toronto, Canada, that aims to provide new life skills to children through educational workshops and physical activities.

Juan Diego Blas, a para-athlete, was also involved with the Olympic Movement through the Guatemalan Olympic Academy. Together, Blas and Matus Bonilla realised their home country would benefit from a programme like United Play; Blas is now the president of United Play Guatemala.

“Like United Play Canada, we look to build and maintain sustainable sports programmes in communities facing social environments that disincentivise youth development,” says Matus Bonilla. “We give workshops focused on the Olympic values, sport, health and well-being. We also create a basic training programme based on the local strengths of the children, using sports equipment we deliver to each community.”

United Play Guatemala works with United Play Canada to develop basic training programmes for community leaders so they can learn how to effectively run the workshops and sports activities. While the curriculums are tailored to the specific groups, the main ideas are based on a “Games Manual” created by United Play Canada.

Sport allows people to make something different out of their lives and their communities. It is a tool to build a better world. Gabriela Matus Bonilla

United Play Guatemala is currently active in three communities across Guatemala City. When selecting places to expand, the organisation looks for communities that do not have the equipment or infrastructure to practise sports. But, most importantly, it looks for groups that intend to participate in United Play as a long-term project. United Play representatives like Matus Bonilla get the programme started, then pass it off to local leaders.

“What we really try to do is empower local leaders to take over the programme,” she says. “We provide basic sports kits, and then check in once or twice a month to see how things are going. It’s important that the community is involved, but this also helps us because we can be involved in more than one project at once and make a greater impact. United Play stays involved, though. I know because of my project management and design experience that you can’t just hand off a project and say, ‘Ok, here you go, see you in five years.’ You have to think about the impact it will have, how the community will use it, what you want the goals to be.”

Matus Bonilla says the children get excited about the opportunity to participate in sports, but the long-term goal is to establish United Play as a mentoring programme. Much like the way she worked with mentors in the Young Change-Makers+ Programme, Matus Bonilla hopes to guide local leaders during their training sessions, teaching them how to be community organisers and giving them the tools they need to make an impact in their own communities.

Opportunities for children are limited in most of the communities United Play Guatemala supports and, according to Matus Bonilla, in some areas people live on less than a dollar a day. She sees sports as a way for children to change their realities and see a better future for themselves. United Play creates opportunities, a sense of optimism and new perspectives to children in underserved neighbourhoods.

“With United Play, we will not be able to eradicate poverty in Guatemala, but I can tell you that it will bring better habits and new opportunities for the children and the community, and they can become leaders and share it with other communities and other children. I believe that sport can help change their day-to-day, get them out in the fresh air and introduce them to new life opportunities.”

“Sport allows people to make something different out of their lives and their communities. It is a tool to build a better world. The spirit of the Olympic and Paralympic values allows people to change their mindsets and get out of their comfort zones. Maybe the people who have been involved in projects like United Play can learn how to use those values, recognise them and apply these lessons for the rest of their lives.”

The Young Change-Makers+ (YCM+) Programme, now in its fifth cycle, invites National Olympic Committees to nominate inspiring young people aged 20-25 to serve as role models for their athletes and ensure they get the most out of their YOG experience. The YCMs are tasked with guiding the athletes through the Athlete Education Programme, encouraging them to be open to cultural exchanges, and introducing them to the Olympic values and all the Movement stands for so they too can return home as ambassadors of the rings. YCMs are also invited to apply for seed funding to deliver their own social projects leveraging sport to address an issue in their community. The YCM+ Programme – which is supported by Panasonic – has so far seen 19 YCMs deliver 28 projects across 17 countries, impacting over 9,000 individual participants.

Learn more about the Youth Olympic Games and the Young Change-Makers+ Programme.

back to top Fr