How Icehearts Is Transforming Lives of At-Risk Kids in Finland

Icehearts uses ice hockey and other team sports, as well as mentoring and educational support, to help at-risk kids develop important life skills. Ville Varumo/Icehearts

As a social worker in Finland, Ville Turkka constantly encountered young men from troubled homes who were at risk for dropping out of school and falling into a life of crime, violence or drugs.

Most of these teenage boys had been flagged as vulnerable long before he met them. But no one had ever stepped in while they were still young to help head off problems before they escalated. In fact, no one even knew where to begin. There had to be a way to intervene earlier, he thought.

One night in a bar in 1996, Turkka had an inspiration. As a child he had loved playing youth ice hockey. Maybe joining a hockey team at a young age (along with mentoring and family support) could help these boys learn social skills, teamwork and discipline so they'd be less likely to end up in serious trouble.

That night, he put together a plan for an innovative, long-term youth development program called Icehearts, and with help from his father, Ilkka, he started his first team for at-risk boys.

Twelve-year social safety net

Today, Icehearts boasts 41 youth teams in 11 cities across Finland with 650 young people currently participating, according to executive director Teemu Vartiamaki.

Kids enroll in Icehearts at age 6 and participate under the guidance of a team leader until they’re 18. Most come from single-parent families with a history of violence, drugs or mental-health issues, or from newly arrived immigrant families that are struggling to assimilate.

“Team sports introduce you to a group with shared goals, within which there are definitive rules you must obey,” Turkka explains in a recent interview with CMRubinWorld. “Our goal is not to become a winning team. Our goal is self-development.”

Icehearts team sports
Kids who participate in learn how to make friends, work together and trust others. Icehearts

But Icehearts offers far more than just a chance to play ice hockey. In addition to coaching, team leaders also serve as steady one-on-one mentors throughout the 12-year program, offering a level of stability that most of the kids lack at home.

In a typical day, team leaders work with the kids’ teachers in the morning to provide individualized educational support, then offer ice hockey and other team sports in the afternoon. They also meet regularly with parents, work with kids individually to offer advice and counseling, and take them on field trips.

Turkka credits this ongoing full-time commitment with creating bonds of trust that change lives. “The children that are sent to our organization face many kinds of challenges that they can only overcome with long-term support,” he says.

Proven lasting impact

Icehearts’ success isn’t just anecdotal. Early results from a long-term study, begun in 2015, show that kids participating in the program undergo significant improvements in well-being and behavior after only one year.

Specifically, study participants initially reported problems with low self-esteem, anxiety, violent outbursts and bullying (both as victims and initiators). After 12 months, they had improved in several key areas, including higher school achievement, better relations with their peers, more respect for adult authority, closer relationships with their parents and elevated self-esteem.

The model has been so successful, in fact, Icehearts expanded in 2015 to include girls. There are currently five girls' teams that follow the same blueprint of team-building and intensive hands-on mentoring.

“Icehearts is a place where kids have a safe, permanent adult who cares and helps,” Vartiamaki says. “Young people who participate repeatedly report feeling seen and heard and say they’ve learned social skills, as well as how to work in a group and make friends. Most keep in touch after leaving the program, often continuing to play hockey together or reaching out to help younger children just as they were helped.”