Karina LeBlanc’s life changed in 2013 during a trip to Honduras, her first as an UNICEF ambassador.
LeBlanc, then still playing goal for the Canadian women’s soccer team, was running a camp for 200 girls on a dirt-gravel field. Gunshots could be heard at times in the background in a country where guns and crime are commonplace, life is cheap and hope can be of short supply.
Then she noticed the jerseys some of the girls were wearing.
“These jerseys came from a Canadian years ago,” LeBlanc was told.
LeBlanc had worn the same Golden Ears soccer club jersey back home in Maple Ridge, B.C., when she first kicked a soccer ball.
‘Where I’m meant to be’
“It kind of hit me then. I was like ‘Wow, I’m exactly where I’m meant to be, doing what I’m meant to be doing.’
“Playing soccer for this country (is) a huge honour. It’s brought me some of the proudest moments of my life. But being named a UNICEF ambassador is right up there. You get to experience moments where your life and story is about something more than just yourself. And you get to talk to these kids and instill hope where they don’t have hope.”
Now retired after five World Cups, two Olympics and 110 caps for her country, LeBlanc still maintains a punishing pace as a motivational speaker, media personality and FIFA and CONCACAF representative.
On Wednesday she speaks to a UNICEF event at the United Nations General Assembly. It’s her second time speaking at the event.
“For me UNICEF has been one of the reasons why I’m able to say I understand now a bit more of my purpose on this Earth,” LeBlanc said.
The 37-year LeBlanc will be talking on “What is your why?”
After her UNICEF speech, it’s off to Russia to speak at a FIFA event.
LeBlanc credits Canadian coach John Herdman for helping push her to widen her horizons outside of sports.
“He basically said to me ‘If you think your purpose on this Earth is to kick a soccer ball for Canada, then I’ve failed you … You have something that is more than just the sport,”‘ she recalled.
“And it triggered me. And it made me ask myself ‘Why am I here? What is my purpose on this world?”‘
After years of kicking a soccer ball, LeBlanc now works on trying to deliver hope and opportunity for others “so they can live and start believing that they are special and that we all have an inner greatness.”
On another trip to speak to a conference in Russia, LeBlanc heard a young woman from northern Kenya on the next panel tell the audience that the Women’s World Cup marked the first time she had ever seen a woman on TV playing soccer.
“We think sometimes we’re playing the sport for just our country,” LeBlanc said. “But for a woman who never even saw that, it changed her life.”
LeBlanc is also a member of the 25th Team, a partnership between UNICEF Canada, a team of 60 influential Canadian women, Teck and Canada Soccer.
Formed in 2015 with the Women’s World Cup in Canada as its inspiration, its four-year goal is to invest in “life-saving projects” in Cambodia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Namibia and Peru. The goal is to help more than two million women and children.