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Abilene soccer camp launches refugee-designed soccer balls around the world

Play4More1
Heather Claborn
/
KACU
Moba Mfaume and Rachel Sanyu display the soccer balls they designed in the ACU Maker Lab at the 2021 camp.

A summer soccer camp that started as a way to engage Abilene’s population of refugee children has sparked a business plan aimed at sharing soccer balls with kids around the world. The campers get to design soccer balls that are sold in the buy-one-give-one style.

Three dozen 9- to 17-year-olds rotate through different stations on the vibrant green soccer field at Abilene Christian University. They take turns defending the goal, practicing dribbling, and playing keep away from the volunteer coaches.

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Heather Claborn
/
KACU
Some campers rush their water break to get back to the field and take turns challenging a goalie.

Most of the campers come from sub-Saharan Africa. A few are recent arrivals from Afghanistan. 15-year-old David Masha says when he was 10 his family came to Abilene from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Soccer was one thing that he had in Congo that helped the transition to his new home, “I used to play for school, even back home, in Africa, so I knew most of the stuff. I just got used to the people and everyone.”

The Play4More Camp relies on volunteers from ACU’s women’s soccer team to organize the activities. Ellen Joss says she sees improvement in returning campers skill, but the goal is to have fun and give the kids a sense of unity in their new home,“We just have the refugees come and enjoy playing soccer. A lot of them aren’t speaking the same language, but we just have the common ground of soccer that brings us together, and it’s just something fun to do for the kids and then for us as a team together.”

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Heather Claborn
/
KACU
Play4More volunteer coaches prioritize fun and connection as they instruct campers.

15-year-old Rachel Sanyu has been coming to the camp since she arrived from Uganda four years ago, “It just brings back the happy memories I had back home with all my friends.  That’s the thing I enjoy to do, since in Africa.”

The soccer camp started a few years ago when Jason Morris reached out to the local office for the International Rescue Committee.

Morris is the Dean of ACU’s Honors College and directs the university’s service and leadership program. He says soon after that first camp he got the idea of taking the kids into ACU’s maker lab to let them explore their artistic sides by creating their own soccer balls, not just for these kids to enjoy, but to share around the world, “With some of our contacts, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, there aren’t enough soccer balls to go around. Villages just have one ball that they use. Sometimes those balls are constructed with plastic bags that they have in their community.”

Morris says it took a couple of years for Play4More to get all the pieces together, “It was last summer where they first designed balls in the maker lab and then from that point we took those designs and worked with them to the specifications that manufacturers needed to produce those designs on actual balls.”

Play4More2
Heather Claborn
/
KACU
Play4More campers experiment with different color schemes as they create their vision for a soccer ball.

Morris and his collaborators picked three designs and had manufacturers create prototypes. Rachel Sanyu’s ball features a design in red, yellow and black. “I actually did my flag colors, like where I’m from. So I’m trying to represent where I’m from in that ball, and it has a lot of memories to me,” Sanyu said.

The first shipment of camper-designed soccer balls have arrived at Amazon for distribution. Jason Morris has already given some balls to an organization serving Afghan refugees in San Diego. And he’s lined up two organizations to start distributing the soccer balls abroad when sales pick up here. One is Rwanda Children, a group that provides education, healthcare and other services to children in the capital of Rwanda. The other is Zambia Medical Mission, which plans to send balls with medical teams that travel to Zambia each year, “They go with their teams into rural areas in many different villages and feel like this would be a great tool to utilize with their work in providing medical care throughout rural Zambia.”

The last piece of Morris’s plan is to set aside ten percent of the profits for college scholarships, first for the local refugee kids who want to study at a college or technical school, and he hopes, eventually, for refugee kids everywhere.

Heather Claborn joined KACU as news director in January 2018. She oversees daily newscast and feature reporting and works with KACU’s news anchors to develop newscasts. She also conducts two-way interviews, reports for newscast and feature stories and maintains the station’s social media and website content. In 2020, Claborn helped staff develop the daily newsletter that is delivered by email.