BERKELEY (KPIX) The idea started with a news story on refugee children in Darfur: children finding a way to play soccer even in war-torn areas. That’s when this week’s Jefferson Award winners set out to create a ball that wouldn’t let these kids down in the harshest of conditions.

When we tuned in to watch World Cup soccer this summer, we saw manicured fields, with teams using the finest equipment.  But it’s a far cry from how most children around the world play the game. For millions, rocky fields, barbed wire, and concrete are the norm.

In fact, said Tim Jahnigen, “The average lifespan of a ball in places like Darfur and Africa and so on is about an hour.”

And that, he adds, is if the kids are lucky enough to have a ball.

“Kids will play with anything they can find,” said Jahnigen’s partner and wife Lisa Tarver. “Plastic bags tied up with strings.. kids will use a condom, socks, a soda bottle.”

Four years ago, Jahnigen and Tarver started the One World Futbol Project to give children around the world the opportunity to play and thrive.

Tarver, who had worked with non-profits in under-developed countries, and Jahnigen, a self-described creative problem-solve, set out to make a better ball.  It would need to be non-toxic, never puncture or go flat, or lose elasticity. They settled on a material called cross-linked closed cell foam, much like popular Croc sandals.

It took eleven months of research, but the newest generation of balls can withstand more than rough play. We watched in disbelief as Jahnigen took a knife to one.

“Yep,” he said, slicing a five-inch gash into the ball. “You can put your hand inside and it’s (still) going to bounce.”

In four short years the One World Futbol Project has delivered one million balls — free — to more than 60 countries worldwide. Chevrolet kick-started this success story by sponsoring the first million and a half units.

“The ball is not political, it’s not philosophical, it’s not ideological, it’s a ball,” explained Jahnigen. “Our goal is to get it in the hands of as many children as possible.”

The Central American Refugee Committee, or CRECE, where Latino immigrants in Oakland play after-school soccer for free, just got their first donation.

Volunteer coach Jennifer Regalado said, “Just the donation in and of itself was enough, and then we found out these balls don’t fall apart! It meant even more to us because we don’t have that big of a budget.”

“You provide a ball, not only play happens but through play, change happens,” Tarver said.

“Play is transformative,” Jahnigen added.

So for recognizing the healing power of play and creating a ball for children that is as indestructible as their spirits, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Tim Jahnigen and Lisa Tarver.

Corporate and individual sponsors make it possible for One World Futbol to donate their balls to organizations working with at-risk communities, but you can buy one at their website and they will donate a ball for every one that is purchased.


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