Jules Rasoelbaks has had a long path towards redemption – and the 48-year-old from the Netherlands has been using his faith and his personal history within the justice system to help former prisoners restart their lives through football.
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Every month, as part of its #EqualGame campaign, UEFA focuses on a person from one of its 55 member associations. This person is an example of how football promotes inclusion, accessibility and diversity; his or her story exemplifies how disability, religion, sexuality, ethnicity and social background are no barriers to playing or enjoying football.
"I have a way with people, I find it easy to relate to them," says Jules Rasoelbaks – a respected coordinator with De Hoop, a rehabilitation centre based in Dordrecht in the Netherlands that helps people with a drug addiction or mental health issue reintegrate into society.
One of his projects involves working closely with FC Dordrecht, who play in the second tier of Dutch football. "I'm an emotional person and, from the first moment, I have seen that we belong with the club. We are one of them, and that is how they feel too."
Together with the club he helps former prisoners gain work experience in maintenance or as hosts and matchday stewards – acknowledging that this is "very important to them as they have to rebuild their lives". The ultimate goal is to advance their prospects of a paid job.
"You can't just walk up to someone on the street and say, 'Hey, you have to be my friend,'" says Rasoelbaks – an outgoing individual who is nonetheless incredibly serious when it comes to his work. He speaks with great enthusiasm about the initiatives De Hoop is undertaking at the football club. "FC Dordrecht have embraced us," he explains. "To be able to cooperate in such a way that you are simply appreciated, recognised and treated as a fully-fledged person, that gives a very good feeling to anyone."
Rasoelbaks has first-hand experience of the difficulties faced in trying to make a new start. He was sent to prison on seven occasions, and was a drug addict for 22 years. He has now been clean for almost a decade, and his role at De Hoop has three main functions: "as bridge builder, ally and representative".
"I have learned that my biggest weapon is my tongue – daring to talk about the things I think about, about what is going on, how I feel," he says. "It is also about showing your vulnerabilities, even as a role model."
The Dordrecht link-up also dovetails with Rasoelbaks' long love affair with football. "I was pretty good at playing – I had talent," he recalls. "During my addiction period, when I was in the clinic and the boys wanted to play football, I went to play in a square in Rotterdam."
More than 35 years on, Jules is unable to play the game as he lives with multiple sclerosis. However, this has not stopped him channelling his energy into helping prevent others falling into the same problems he endured in his youth.
"We have a football tournament every month at the rehabilitation centre, where the boys can unleash their energy. It gives them time to unwind and, for a short while, be away from therapy," he explains. "Emotions run high. Everyone plays together, staff included, which creates togetherness – and that shows the power of football."
The Dutch Justice and Security Ministry is also striving to reintegrate prisoners into society through its 'Work through Sport' programme. So far, 54 participants have managed to find work via the scheme, with 30 clubs, including Dordrecht, taking part.
"'Work through Sport' considers this to be a win-win situation," emphasises Gerko Brink, the project leader. "The cooperation with the clubs has been established in order to create an innovative, sustainable way of helping detainees back into the workplace.
"However, the most important success factor is the new social network for a detainee," he adds. "A football club is often a warm nest, a clean social network, and prisoners feel like they belong somewhere."
Rasoelbaks himself has walked a long road to redemption – one that has required eight years of therapy. Yet he has been on the right track for the past nine years, and is content with life. "I work at De Hoop, I have a nice job, friends, I have five children, I am a grandfather to a granddaughter," he says.
"I have obviously had some problems, but in the end the upshot is that I am here and I can do so many things for De Hoop today. That also drives me on."