Sometimes a soccer ball is more than just a ball. Sometimes, it’s a lifesaver.
Tim Jahnigen has always followed his heart, whether as a carpenter, a chef, a lyricist or as an entrepreneur. So in 2006, when he saw a documentary about children in Darfur who found solace playing soccer with balls made out of garbage and string, he was inspired to do something about it. The children, he learned, used trash because the balls donated by relief agencies and sporting goods companies quickly ripped or deflated on the rocky dirt that doubled as soccer fields. Kicking a ball around provided such joy in otherwise stressful and trying conditions that the children would play with practically anything that approximated a ball.
“The only thing that sustained these kids is play,” said Jahnigen of Berkeley, California. “Yet the millions of balls that are donated often go flat within hours.” During the next two years, Jahnigen, who was also working to develop an infrared medical technology, searched for something that could be made into a ball but never wear out, go flat or need a pump.
Many engineers he spoke to were wary his idea. But Jahnigen already knew the material he wanted to use – PopFoam, a type of hard foam made of ethylene-vinyl acetate, a class of material similar to that used in Crocs, the popular and durable sandals. “It’s changed my life,” he said. Figuring out how to shape PopFoam into a sphere, though, might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and Jahnigen’s money was tied up in his other business.
Then, he happened to be having breakfast with Sting, a friend from his days in the music business. Jahnigen told him how soccer helped the children in Darfur cope with their troubles and his efforts to find an indestructible ball. Sting urged Jahnigen to drop everything and make the ball. Once Sting heard Jahnigen’s vision for the ball, he provided the initial funding for the research and development for a prototype of the One World Futbol.
In recognition of Sting’s crucial, early support, the name of the ball, and company, are based on Sting’s song One World (Not Three). Even on the harshest of terrain and in the worst of conditions, the ball could survive and the kids could still play. Creating a prototype, it turned out, cost about one-tenth as much as expected and took about a year. To test the balls’ durability, Jahnigen sent them to places like Rwanda, where they were used at a camp for former child soldiers.
A lion at the Johannesburg Zoo, who would go through six regular balls a day, played with two balls. A German shepherd spent a year biting on a ball. In every case, the balls withstood the abuse. “When we tested the first rough prototype on the ground in Rwanda, Haiti and Iraq, it was already infinitely better than a wad of trash or a bottle,” Jahnigen said.
He carries samples around the world to conferences, and to show potential partners, organizations and sponsors. For effect, Jahnigen often squeezes the One World Futbol or steps on it. All of them bounce and hold their shape. By his estimate, the ball can last for many years, eliminating the need for thousands of hand-sewn leather balls that are typically donated by relief agencies.
One World Futbol Project has distributed more than 700,000 footballs in more than 165 countries, impacting the lives of an estimated 21 million children around the world since July 2010. For each ball purchased, another is donated to an organization working with disadvantaged communities where play and sport are used to foster social change. Word has spread. Flight attendants, Doctors Without Borders and a U.S. Army colonel in Afghanistan have taken balls with them on their travels.
“With this ball, we know they can keep the programs going when we leave,” said Nick Gates, the founder of Coaches Across Continents, which helps teachers and coaches in countries like Sudan use soccer as a tool for education and healing. “You can’t do any education without them. They’re more valuable than cows or goats because of the things you can do in the community.”
In May 2012, Chevrolet, the General Motors division, agreed to support the distribution and donation of 1.5 million One World Futbols over three years. “We believe in the power of play to unite and heal and provide development for children,” said John McFarland, a member of the global marketing strategy team at General Motors. “We don’t want to focus on the beautiful game, but what is beautiful about the game.”
Over the past three years, retail sales have increased more than 400 percent. To better service its growing base of customers in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, One World Futbol Project announced the addition of its European distribution center and a partnership with RHIEM Group, the e-commerce and fulfilment specialist based in Voerde, near Düsseldorf in Germany.
The distribution center is the first step in the organizations global expansion of its distribution network. It supports the company’s mission of reaching the most vulnerable members of society – our children – and igniting their potential through the power of play.
In time, Jahnigen hopes to get millions of other balls into the hands of children. “A child can play to their heart’s content where there are no contented hearts,” he said. “We don’t understand that for these kids, having a ball is like having the best PlayStation 3 or a rocket to Mars.”
For Jahnigen, using science to solve problems for children around the world is no game, but he is clearly having a ball doing it.