“Extending the opportunity of play to kids worldwide through the gift of sports”
Sometimes, the simplest efforts on our part can have an exponential impact on the lives of others. This certainly was the case when Erin Brown and Josh Zeyak decided to collect and distribute used sports equipment to young people in need.
In a little more than a year, the impact of Sport the Youth is already being felt from rural Montana to the earthquake-ravaged island of Haiti.
And no one is more surprised, or pleased, than Erin Brown.
“It’s just a really simple way to help other people out,” she says. “I’m only the organizer.”
The plan begins simply enough. In fact, it all starts with a chance conversation.
Brown – who now lives full-time in Orange County with her husband Mike and their two small children – is chatting with Zeyak, the contractor handling the interior work for their home renovation. When he learns that Brown has worked with several nonprofits and done a good deal of charitable work, Zeyak expresses his desire to do something for and with underprivileged kids in other countries.
Almost immediately, the two are brainstorming about how they can collect and provide sports equipment for kids. They decide on a “Robin Hood” approach, choosing to take from people who have enough and giving to others who don’t. They launch a “Sport the Youth” Facebook Fan Page in early 2010 and begin soliciting equipment donations.
Those donations reach critical mass in just a few weeks, and their focus quickly switches to distribution. To help ensure the success of their first trip, they choose to partner with the Global Orphan Project, based in Kansas City. Brown had worked with them when she lived there, and knew her team would be welcome to tag along on an upcoming trip to Haiti to add an element of “play” to the work the Global Outreach Project was already doing.
Brown, Zayek and three other volunteers fly to Haiti in May of 2010. Along with the Global Outreach Project, the five visit three orphanages, encouraged by the reception they receive.
But the island is also extremely poor. Out of necessity, yet with creativity, children often play soccer with mangoes. Few people own anything – let alone shoes or sports equipment. The children at the orphanages are unsure of what to do with the items the team brings them. Young girls cling to their jump ropes tightly, and a boy simply carries the bat and ball he receives around the yard.
Brown and Zeyak’s team quickly learn to demonstrate unfamiliar equipment after handing out Lacrosse sticks and baseball mitts. Each time they do, joyful play breaks out immediately.
The dozens of shoes they bring require no explanation, of course, and the orphans quickly slip them on. Despite the flurry of activity surrounding the shoe distribution, one particular bright red pair stands out in Brown’s memory. These shoes – and the girl she calls “Leila” who now proudly wears them – have become a living snapshot of all Brown hoped could be accomplished by the project. Slavery is legal in Haiti, and “Leila’s” family sells her at the age of four. She serves her owners for eight years, but after she is raped at age twelve, her owners cast her out into the streets, pregnant and alone.
Today, at the age of 13, “Leila” and her healthy baby daughter live in freedom at one of the Global Orphan Project orphanages. As Brown watches her slip on the red shoes for the first time, she realizes that Lake, a young neighbor girl who lives on Brown’s street back home, has donated them. Seeing the joy on “Leila’s” face, and remembering how easy it was for Lake to donate the shoes, completely validates the goals of Sport the Youth.
Upon returning home, Brown became more intentional about the project, and discusses it with another neighbor, Betsy Duerksen, a four-year soccer All-American at Boston College and a member of their Hall of Fame. As a former head coach at Seattle University and the University of Montana, Duerksen wholeheartedly agrees with the value of getting youth engaged in sporting activities. She quickly volunteers to help organize a two-day “gear drive,” which is a total success.
In addition, through her friend’s university and club team connections, “retired” uniforms began arriving to go along with the shoes and equipment. For example, Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, California, recently donated dozens of soccer uniforms from an abandoned intramural program, and Sport the Youth sent them off to outfit a team in Haiti.
“There is also a huge need for sports equipment here in the States, especially in rural areas…”
There is also a huge need for sports equipment here in the States, especially in rural areas where schools lack funding for sports programs, so not all of the donations Sport the Youth receive are being sent overseas. In fact, one of Duerksen’s former soccer players, who now coaches at a Native American school in Montana, recently called her mentor, and Sport the
Youth provided her unfunded team with uniforms and gear.
Plans are currently underway for Sport the Youth trips to Cambodia and to Central California soon
to make distributions, but the potential for “gear drops” is really unlimited. Instead of seeking specific items, Sport the Youth collects everything that comes in and seeks to match things to the requests Brown receives via email and other personal contacts, which makes it even easier for people to donate and distribute shoes, equipment and other sports items.
In the future, Sport the Youth may take on an even more influential role, one that goes beyond the distribution of equipment.
“What I truly would love to see happen are three- or four-day training sessions where we teach coaches on how to coach children,” Brown shares. “We would create an infrastructure in a country, and the coaches would carry on the day-to-day work.”
No matter what the future holds, Brown wants Sport the Youth to remain a grass-roots movement. Although originally intended to become a 501(c)(3), Brown has realized that due to the heart-driven nature of this program, it needs to remain simple and unencumbered. To that end, she has an easy “how-to” tip sheet for organizing an equipment drive she shares with anyone who asks.
Brown enjoys seeing Sport the Youth develop, and she has high hopes for the program, primarily because of her strong belief in the power of sports participation.
“Playing sports is the best way for children [in impoverished countries] to create an other-minded mentality,” Brown says. “It’s the best way to learn a work ethic, to start something and finish it, even if it’s only one game. It’s the best way to become a better person if you don’t have other options around you.”
Just ask “Leila.” She knows the joy of walking in someone else’s shoes.
By Garett McCorkle