What started as a summer soccer camp to engage Abilene’s refugee children has expanded into a global effort providing free soccer balls to underprivileged children across the world, and will partner this summer with Bob Goff’s Love Does organization to offer a soccer camp for Ukrainian refugees in Poland.
Drs. Jason (’96) and Heidi (White ’98) Morris, both professors at Abilene Christian University, began organizing a soccer camp in Abilene in 2019 with the help of the ACU women’s soccer team, Abilene’s International Rescue Committee and local volunteers.
Jason Morris, dean of the Honors College and director of ACU’s Lynay program, conceived of the idea while sitting in church one Sunday.
“I have three boys who are all involved in sports and athletics,” he said. “I was in church thinking about getting them more involved with service opportunities. My oldest son doesn’t like to travel very much, so I was thinking, what can we do locally?”
Then he thought of his friend, Susanna Lubanga (’05), who is deputy director of the local International Refugee Committee and an ACU alumna, and wondered if she might help put together a free soccer camp for local refugee children. Morris approached Lubanga about the idea, and she was immediately on board.
The IRC secured donations to cover jerseys, equipment and water for campers, and the Morrises reached out to ACU women’s soccer players and local high school age players to provide coaching and skills. About 30 children of local refugee families attended that first year. In 2020, the camp was canceled due to COVID-19, but it was back on in 2021 and has happened each summer since.
During the process, the Morris family got to know some of the resettled families. “As we developed friendships with these kids during the camps, they began asking us to play soccer beyond the three days of camp,” he said. “So we started to play pick-up games with them regularly, and currently my boys and I, plus several ACU Lynay students, play with kids almost every Sunday afternoon. Our hope is that it helps them make connections in the community and maybe, at least for a little while, helps them forget about some of the hard things in their lives.”
After the camp proved a success, Morris began to think of other ways to use the popular sport as a way to positively impact the lives of young people through the game of soccer. .
“That’s when an entrepreneurial idea struck me,” he recalled. The result was a social impact venture called Play4More Soccer, based on a buy-one-give-one model. After one of the camps, Morris and Dr. Nil Santana (’00 M.S.), associate professor of art and design, offered a workshop in ACU’s Maker Lab, where the campers used their creativity to design the exterior of a soccer ball.
“They came up with some fantastic designs,” Morris said. “We used their designs to launch a soccer ball company with a unique mission: to help create more moments of joy through play for kids around the globe.”
Two of the designs are now in production and can be purchased on the Play4More website, with each purchase supplying a giveaway ball to a child living in poverty in developing countries or a resettled refugee child. In addition, 10% of the proceeds are contributed to fund scholarships for refugee children. “The scholarship piece of this is very important to me,” Morris said. “I ultimately want this project to provide resources for refugees to thrive, and further education is a key to that.”
In June, Play4More Soccer will expand its reach by offering its first international soccer camp in Warsaw, Poland, in collaboration with Bob Goff’s Love Does school there. The camp will be for Ukrainian refugees and conducted by students from ACU’s Lynay program, who will also earn credit for a course taught by Lubanga on Working with Displaced Persons.
Annie Jacobs, international programs manager for Love Does, says her organization is honored to partner with Play4More Soccer. “We seek to provide not only educational opportunities for kids around the world, but opportunities for intentional joy,” she said. “We’ve seen firsthand the struggles refugees face. They are some of the bravest, most resilient people we know. We’ve also seen what play does for kids in the midst of trying times. Whether it’s playing with balloons or soccer balls, giving kids an opportunity to be kids is vital.”
Love Does is one of four organizations currently partnering with Play4More Soccer. The others are IRC Abilene, Zambia Medical Mission and Rwanda Children, founded by ACU alumnus Serge Gasore (’09).
Gasore notes soccer is the most played sport in his country. “And it’s not affordable for so many children,” he said. “Play4More Soccer came at the right time when we were looking for a version of a soccer ball we could afford to give to vulnerable children served through Rwanda Children’s ministry and the community. Now, the problem has been solved, and we are super grateful for this rare opportunity.”
Morris hopes to see Play4More Soccer continue to grow. “We are moving into 2023 with a really solid foundation. Our online presence is expanding, and we are searching for sales channels and partners in youth soccer. I am also thrilled that we have a really great short film that ACU alumnus and Los Angeles filmmaker Adam Willis (’02) directed. ACU has a lot of talented students and alumni who are involved in the project.”
But at the end of the day, Morris gives the credit to God. “He’s motivated me out of love and kindness to take this idea related to the ‘beautiful game’ and to do good for others throughout the world. We can say that we care for others, but living this out through action is what we are called to do. I just want Play4More Soccer to be one way to spread joy and kindness to others.”
– Robin Saylor
March 21, 2023