For nearly 40 years, a non-profit soccer academy in a small town in Bolivia has done more than develop youngsters into future futbol stars. The academy’s real mission lies beyond soccer: to serve and provide the youth of Santa Cruz de la Sierra with the education, food, and health services needed to escape the poverty and violence that afflicts their city.

Founder Rolando Aguilera Pareja lived in Washington as in political exile from 1971-1977 during the military dictatorship of Hugo Banzer. He returned to Bolivia and soon hired a soccer coach to train his sons. That same coach then trained Aguilar’s nephews, the kids in the neighborhood, and other local youngsters. The endeavor grew to the point of requiring a staff to train the local youth in soccer and so, on May 1, 1978, Pareja opened the doors to the Academia de Fútbol Tahuichi Aguilera in 1978, named after his father who was nicknamed Tahuichi (“Big Bird”) in the Tupí-Guaraní dialects.

Two hundred boys roamed the soccer pitch at Tahuichi in 1978. Today, nearly 3,000 boys and girls train at the school under the guidance of Pareja’s son, Roli Aguilera, who continues his father’s work as the academy’s president.

Rolando Aguilera Pareja

Nearly 90 percent of the children who attend the academy do so via scholarships provided by the academy, which provides more than soccer training. The children attend the school every day, weekdays and weekends, where they also receive a full and proper education, healthcare, and healthy meals. The academy fills in the gaps left by a town racked with poverty, rampant drug use, and alcoholism.

Many of Bolivia’s best players have been products of the Academia Tahuichi. Bolivia’s historic 1994 World Cup qualifying team included many Tahuichi players, such as Marco “El Diablo” Etcheverry, Erwin Sanchez, Luis Cristaldo, and Juan Manuel Peña. The country’s squad at the Copa América Centenario includes Tahuichi players Juan Carlos Arce and Jhasmani Campos.

Marco “El Diablo” Etcheverry

The academy’s work has earned Aguilera, his staff, and his young athletes acclaim across the world from various organizations and legendary players. The academy is a six-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee and has earned praise from Pelé, Diego Maradona, and political activist Rigoberta Menchú.