A couple of years ago, I visited Zambia, where construction was beginning on the $140-million Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, South Africa; it was one of a handful of new stadiums erected to host World Cup games this past summer.
During the trip I met Mwale, an engaging 9-year-old, who uses a self-made hammer to chip away at rocks, earning roughly 50 cents a day for painstaking labor under the scorching sun. An orphan–one of the more than 600,000 AIDS orphans in a country that sees a staggering 200 people become infected with the life-shortening disease every day–he returns to his village each evening where all he wants to do is play soccer with his friends using a ball made of plastic bags wrapped in twine.
Such is the power of sports for children, whether it’s here or several time zones away.
Of course, there are no colorful uniforms, manicured fields, organized games or scoreboards. There are no post-game pizza parties, travel-team tryouts or encouraging words from coaches and parents.
For Mwale and his generation on that side of the world, organized sports are like a mirage in the desert–hopelessly out of reach.
While the world watched jaw-dropping displays of athletic skill during the World Cup, the shanty towns behind the paper façade were never seen. If you tear back the curtain and peek beyond the fancy stadiums and the passionate fans, you’ll find children existing in unspeakable conditions.
Nelspruit, the site of the 46,000-seat stadium, is the same city where many local children obtain their drinking water from dirty puddles, and live without electricity and toilets. Inexplicably, two schools were bulldozed to make room for the stadium, forcing youngsters to transfer to hot and airless classrooms.
How appalling is that?
By the way, a grand total of four World Cup games were played in Nelspruit. That amounts to fewer than eight hours of soccer action.
What message is being sent to these innocent children, casualties of neglect, surviving in the shadows of these extravagant structures with no sports equipment to use or facilities to play at, and with no hope for a better tomorrow?
Making A Difference
Nelson Mandela, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning former president of South Africa said: “Sports have the power to change the world, the power to inspire, the power to unite people in a way that little else can … sports speak to the people in a language they understand … sports can create hope where there was once despair.”
Those words couldn’t be truer.
The National Alliance for Youth Sports’ “One World, One Team” initiative collects new and gently used sports equipment from recreation departments and individuals, and ships it to children in need around the world.
That box of sports equipment that doesn’t get much use at your facility can be life-changing for a child in need.
Take a moment to reflect on what sports have meant to you in your life, and then imagine what it would have been like with no equipment or available programs.
Mwale may have the talent and desire to be one of his country’s greatest athletes, but with the horrendous conditions he and millions of other children are forced to live in, we’ll never know.
Even worse, neither will he.
But together we can change that.
Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS chapter, visit www.nays.org or contact Emmy Martinez at email@example.com or (800) 729-2057.