Tuesday, June 16, 2009

We Shall Return

Today’s blog is brought to you in dirty brown. Which pretty much happily sums up the clothes in my suitcase.

Two million miles on United and I’m about to fly out of Nairobi on KENYA AIRWAYS??? Huh?? Back to Ahhhmereeecaa? (Isn’t that how Eddie Murphy pronounced it in Coming to America?)

As we lift off I think back to the first time Frank talked to me about what would later become “Soccer Saves”. How could one conversation eight years ago lead to this????? It all started at Northwest Soccer Camp - with his kids - he dragged me aside and threatened me. He dared to suggest that our mission (“Kids may forget what you say and even what you do; but they will never forget how you made them feel!”) that drove us to provide great soccer and special things about life for some 70,000 kids over the years possibly, just possibly, could be made available to a couple million or more disadvantaged kids. In Africa! And other developing countries.

My response: “You have my attention!!” So years later here we are in the heart of Africa!

Places like Adama, Ethiopia – arguably one of the poorest spots on earth!! And Nairobi – a place I always associated with skinny, world-class marathon wizards named Kip Keino (another GREAT name).

So how to crank out a summary blog instead of a 47 page position paper?

First, it’s no longer how “you made them feel”! It’s how you fixed their teeth. How you kill mosquitoes the size of mopeds whose deadly sting - that kills 3,000 precious persons - DAILY - have to be silenced! It’s how you cuddle smelly, sweaty, greasy, dirty, wide-eyed, very special, very lovable, clinging children of the universe long enough to help the boys keep their ‘thang’ in their pants and the girls to stay away from the HIV/AIDS truck stops long enough to discover there might be a ‘higher’ cleaner, healthier road for them to travel. I mean, where the hell is M. Scott Peck when we need him?

Screw “life is difficult”. Here, in these teeming caldrons of despair, disease, impossibility, filth, disease and hopelessness there is a beach full of Starfish groaning for a single fling to restoration. A glimmer of hope. An act that can make a difference. Here the teeming hordes seeking help – and a morsel of bread – need to live just one more day long enough for the Uncle Nubbys and Franks (and Sarahs, Susies, Rachels, Billys, Bobbys and Matties) of the world to stop what they’re doing long enough to “Give them a shot!”
But I digress!

What the final day in Nairobi was all about can be expressed in an acronym: MYSA!!! That’s not Mukilteo Youth Soccer Association; its the Mathare Youth Sports Association! A soccer league in the middle of the biggest slum in Nairobi????

We drive in and around and in and around potholes the size of craters on the moon. Inside the MYSA complex is a brick laid square bordered by neatly arranged buildings giving the illusion of an English tudor mansion. There’s a fitness center with professional trainers and all the amenities one might find in a 24 Hour Fitness Center anywhere.

Beyond the two story ‘central office’ building is a brick red, but perfectly level, soccer field not unlike what one might find in professional clubs in Brazil. Inside are pleasant offices and soda machines and trophy cases. And bookshelves with books and binders and clean, neat stacks of papers filed for future reference. Computers and telephones and sharp looking people with clean shirts and warm, cheerful smiles.

And, Peter K, the CEO and visionary of this empire for all things good. He is a short, well-built, serene, soft-spoken - but very intelligent man - of about 40 something. He quietly articulates how MYSA began – in 1987 and grew, from a vision and a passion to help kids, to an army of 18,000 boys and girls who are dispersed orderly, if not evenly, in 16 zones throughout one of the largest slum areas of Nairobi. There are over 1,000 teams that compete weekly, most of whom play in their bare feet on those brick-red dusty fields. But, unlike the stone, glass strewn hazard pitches of Ethiopia, these are manicured…raked and level and void of sharp objects. That’s because MYSA isn’t just a futbol league; it’s a laboratory of life’s higher aims. Teams get the usual points for wins and draws but the “secret sauce” are the bonus points teams and players get for doing good – cleaning up the slums, helping run the league (coaching, refereeing, washing jerseys, etc. and teaching healthy lifestyle lessons to the younger players). Members outline a neighborhood to be ‘swept’ and then in teams, pitch in with the precision and organization of army ants. Rubber/plastic bags are provided and the city (village?) provides a truck and the revitalization begins. In addition to this kind of ‘home improvement’ they also tackle drainage and sewage problems to help restore some semblance of sanitation in areas where disease and squalor are rampant. On the soccer side the program has developed to the point whereby they even enter teams in some of the more well known international tournaments such as the Dania Cup and Norway tournaments where they have won the gold numerous times.

The end result? Measurable results. Changed lives. Reduced incidence of disease and death. And hope! Hope for a different kind of future. Amazing work by amazing people.

This trip was about learning and validating the vision. So what did we learn – other than the obvious eye-opening/popping, life-changing pictures of what 90% of the world’s teenagers face every day of their threatened lives?

Here, in no particular order are the early returns:

· Save the Children, with their Sport for Life curriculum and other programming, is doing an amazing job of reaching OVCs (orphans and vulnerable children) – 5 million plussss in Ethiopia alone.

· Organizations like MYSA, Grassroots Soccer and others are making a difference. We read about it, we saw it, we believe it.

· Soccer Saves is the missing piece that, as Frank says, is the “sizzle” that instantly lures these kids in and, once in, we CAN get the message to them about choosing healthy lifestyles, better decision making, HIV/AIDS education, gender equity (respect and proper love) and formulae for healthier reproductive behaviors.

· We need to mobilize the soccer players of America – at all levels: High school, clubs, college and professional to consolidate the gains that Save the Children is making.

· Thanks to the growing legions of Soccer Saves supporters – Charlotte, the Soccer Saves team, the Robins, Sounders FC organization and former players and friends.

· And, special thanks to the owner and ‘King’ of Seattle’s El Capitan Apartments, Alvin “Bubba” Hendricks, an irascible, wonderful, one-of-a-kind man of passion, love and caring who, along with his ever so elegant , wonderful and loving wife Narci - and very dedicated son Manny - made this initial venture possible. Without their very generous capacity building grant, this eye opening, strategy validating, program enhancing journey, would not be possible.

Nine hours, 47 minutes in a packed coach class cabin. It was one of the more delightful, elegant rides I have ever had. Can’t wait to return.

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