Mayor Chagai knows the life-changing effect of receiving help. Aged six, he escaped war and famine in South Sudan, leaving behind his family and all that he knew. But, during his arduous journey to freedom, his years in refugee camps and then in a new life in Australia, Mayor found support and compassion from others, something he has never forgotten.
Help is what inspires Mayor in his role as head coach of the Savannah Pride youth basketball and welfare program in Mount Druitt, in Sydney’s West. It’s an organisation he co-founded in 2006 to help at-risk young people build self-esteem and develop academic, sporting and life skills.
The program, which features 12 weekly classes for girls and boys aged six to 20 from all communities and backgrounds, has seen several alumni go on to represent teams such as the Sydney Kings or win prestigious US college and high school sports scholarships. It has also brought positive change and vital support to young people living in Western Sydney.
Mayor’s pride in every member of Savannah Pride is obvious. He believes winning scholarships or professional team placements is as important and valuable as working hard in the program’s homework classes, on-court training sessions and competitive games.
“Our philosophy, our idea, is that we don't want to leave anyone behind,” he says. “We don't really care what size you are, or what ability or talent that you have. We’re creating an environment where people are helping each other, and the kids look up to each other and then feel better and proud of each other.
“It is more about social engagement, social cohesion. To have positive engagement for the kids and also create something for the next generation and integrate within the Australian community.”
‘Help means love’
The roots of Savannah Pride began when Mayor started playing basketball while studying at TAFE. Groups of young kids gathered to watch, asking afterwards if they were allowed to play, too.
“There was no-one to help them and I decided it is better to help these kids instead of them going to hang out in the shopping centre after school and doing nothing,” he says. “Many of the kids were newly arrived migrants to Australia. I decided with my colleagues that we organise a young kids basketball training program. And, slowly, the numbers of kids kept coming up.”
Mayor had remembered how sport had helped him after his harrowing months-long trek out of South Sudan. Hundreds of children attempting to escape the country’s civil war had died from starvation or army attacks. While living in a refugee camp, playing basketball helped Mayor cope with these memories.
“In the camp, after school, we'd go to sport, just in the dirt field,” he says. “And it was fun. It was good.”
Mayor plans to let the next generation take the reins at Savannah Pride in coming years but will never stop helping young people there. His tireless (and entirely voluntary) work was recently recognised with a prestigious Harmony Medal at the NSW Premier’s 2020 Multicultural Community Medals.
“There's no way that I would be able to pay back all the people that have helped me along the way when I was young, in my journey, when there was war in our country,” he says.
“I’m still trying to give back because some of those people that helped me might have not made it to Australia. Some people might have died along the way. But they offered me something that I'm enjoying today. That is why it is a big thing for me to give back to those people that helped me along the way.”
For Mayor, the word ‘help’ is very powerful. “It means love, supporting someone, giving someone an opportunity,” he says. “When you call out for help, and someone helps you when you need it, you know help.
“I have experienced real help.”