On a recent trip to Malawi in southeastern Africa, my son, Richard, granddaughter, Katelin, of Oak Park, and I served as volunteers for an Earthwatch Project at the Majete Wildlife Reserve. Majete is a management project of African Parks, a nonprofit conservation organization that took over the reserve in 2003 when it was nearly void of animals due to poaching and big game hunting.

Today, the park is the envy of many struggling African parks. Its success produced an abundance of animals, creating the need for their translocation to other Malawi reserves. We were most fortunate to be onsite during the preparation for the departure of 500 elephants and hundreds of zebras, waterbucks and other species. A successful wildlife reserve means more tourists, more jobs and more money for the people in the poor surrounding communities. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in Africa—more than half its population lives on less than $1 a day. 

We also had an opportunity to visit a nearby village and local school. Having grown up in England, where my husband was working for General Motors, Rich developed an affinity for soccer. He played throughout his years at English schools, the University of Notre Dame and later with soccer clubs in Southern California. Rich lives and breathes soccer, or “football,” as it is known to the rest of the world. Millions of youth participate, from the poorest villages of Brazil to the smallest communities in Africa. All that is required is a ball, a field and goals.

Years back, Rich had become acquainted with One World Futbol soccer balls when his other soccer-playing daughter, Nicolette, travelled to Brazil on a volunteer project with Coaches Across Continents. Each volunteer brought eight One World Futbols. 

World Futbol was founded by Tim Jahnigen who saw a news story about kids in a Darfur refugee camp playing with soccer balls made from plastic and twine. He decided “kids need to be kids” even in the poorest places on Earth and envisaged creating a ball that would be indestructible in the harshest conditions of refugee camps, alleys of the barrios and slums of the world.

Tim’s dream of an ultra-durable ball became a reality in 2008, when his famous singer friend, Sting, an ardent football fan, generously provided the initial funding to create a One World Futbol prototype. Two years later, Chevrolet became the founding sponsor and began freely distributing over a million balls to communities throughout the world.

The great thing about these balls is they never require a pump, because they are self-inflating and never go flat.

Having read about the villages and schools on our itinerary, Rich knew a One World Futbol would be the perfect gift to bring to Malawi; he loaded the balls, bibs, field cones, whistles and mesh equipment bags for the trip. 

The first delivery was made to the children of Mejete’s staff at a soccer field located inside the wildlife reserve. The children there were the sons of park rangers and guides from the surrounding villages. You couldn’t help but notice the barefoot boys kicking around a ball they had made from plastic bags and string.

Rich had set up the field with cones and distributed bibs to the teams; it was time to start the game. The boys played with their ball for about 15 minutes until Rich walked onto the field and gave them a One World Futbol. What a transformation! After the game, the boys were happy to learn that the ball and equipment would remain with the rangers.

Several days later, we were invited to Mavuwa Primary School where Rich presented the school principal, Mr. Masamba, with a mesh bag containing balls, bibs and cones.

To watch the Malawian boys playing their game of football was extremely rewarding. We marveled at how something as simple as a ball can bring joy and laughter to millions of kids around the world—the “power of play.”

One World Futbol is now known as the One World Play Project. With the help of sponsors, partners and supporters, One World Play Project is working to turn the world into a field of play. Today, over 45 million boys and girls are playing with these balls.

Rich, Katelin and I will be forever rewarded by the appreciation, happiness and smiles we received from the enthusiastic reception of our modest, football gifts to these deserving children.

For more information, visit OneWorldPlayProject.com/.