Monday, September 19, 2005

Playing for Peace 

Although we rarely traffic in inspirational items (mainly because we so seldom have the opportunity), we are pleased to bring you, courtesy of our distinguished colleague Mark Gisleson at Norwegianity, a heartening piece by former Arizona Wildcat and Bull/Spur/Cav Steve KERRRRRRRRrrrrrrr:
Playing For Peace is based in Washington, D.C., and was founded by two brothers, Sean and Brendan Tuohey. Sean played basketball professionally in Ireland and learned firsthand of the divide between Protestants and Catholics. He realized that basketball could be a perfect vehicle to provide interaction and communication between children who are otherwise segregated and historically at odds. So he enlisted his brother's help and formed PFP.

The original chapter was opened in Durban in 2001, followed by one in Belfast. This summer, Sean Tuohey moved to Israel to begin operations involving Palestinian and Israeli kids. He left for the Middle East only after helping to build a highly successful operation in Durban that has included more than 20,000 young South African children.

South Africa is a racially diverse country, yet it is just 11 years removed from apartheid and thus is extremely segregated. Racial interaction is critical to the future of the country, and in effect, PFP is using basketball to provide that interaction. Traditionally in South Africa, black kids have played soccer, while white children compete in rugby and cricket. Basketball is a neutral sport the kids can learn together.

My family witnessed this firsthand. We were able to participate in camps and clinics all over the city, including the impoverished townships of Umlazi and Lemontville. Seeing these shantytowns for the first time is shocking – overflowing classrooms at rundown schools, makeshift scrap-metal sheds and huts for housing, barely any room to breathe as the roads and neighborhoods are jammed with people.

Worst of all, AIDS runs rampant in South Africa, especially throughout the townships. The principal of one school in Umlazi estimated that 35 percent of her students were orphaned because of AIDS, and that 20 percent were HIV positive themselves. With unemployment running high and a very poor educational system, the future appears grim for these children.

Playing For Peace is giving these kids hope. The organization has built 45 basketball courts at various schools. It provides balls, uniforms and instruction, and offers AIDS education and life skills programs as well. PFP runs tournaments, many of which include school teams from wealthier and predominantly white neighborhoods that travel to townships for the first time in the players' lives to compete with and against black kids. It is an opportunity for South Africans from very different backgrounds to communicate and feel more comfortable around each other.

The three American men at the heart of the Durban operation – Brian Shea, Zach Leverenz and Geoff Schwarten, hire and train a staff of 90 local South African young men and women to coach the youngsters. Each coach is in charge of a school team in his or her own neighborhood. They run practices during the week, with the highlight being Friday – game day. Like kids in America, the South African youngsters take great pride in their schools, their teams and competition. The games are lively and are filled with energy, passion and local Zulu culture . . . .

PFP relies on individual and corporate funding and private grants. The South African government has invested in the organization, as well as The Laureus Sports Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the NBA, including several of its teams – the San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Phoenix Suns. For more information on PFP, please refer to the group's website, Playingforpeace.org.
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