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Danville Express

Cover Story - August 8, 2008

World Games

Teens score a goal with soccer fields in Africa

by Geoff Gillette

When you think of teenagers giving back to the community, food drives and campus cleanups come to mind. With Garrett and Kyle Weiss, think bigger. A lot bigger. Like, say, globally.

The Monte Vista High School students are the architects of FUNDaFIELD, a project aimed at providing soccer fields and equipment for children throughout poverty stricken and devastated areas of Africa.

The two brothers, now 17 and 15, got the idea while attending the 2006 World Cup in Leipzig, Germany. For the Weisses, soccer players from the age of 4, attending the World Cup was a dream come true, and the family attended the Iran/Angola match-up.

"It was a big deal for Angola to be there," said Kyle. "They had just gotten out of a 25-year-long civil war and for them to be in the World Cup really meant something to them. They had few fans but they were so passionate. They were the craziest fans we saw at the World Cup."

As the brothers learned more about the plight of Angola and other African nations, they were spurred to begin an amazing journey.

"We wanted to help," Garrett said. "Seeing how passionate they were. It was that passion which drove us to start it."

The brothers knew they wanted to help, but where could they begin when the problems in Africa were so huge? What could they do to help?

"We didn't know what to do at first," Garrett said.

"But seeing them at the World Cup made us think that maybe we should give them soccer fields," Kyle added.

Thus began FUNDaFIELD.

The teens saw they could help with one small thing among the host of issues facing Africa. And they used this same approach with fundraising: Many little contributions add up to a large sum of money.

They put together a Web site - www.fundafield.com - hosted on their own computer, created a grid, and started selling its squares.

"You know those pictures where the big picture is made out of a bunch of small pictures? That's what we're doing," Kyle explained. "We sell squares for $1 each. Your initials go on the square and it is placed within the larger picture. When all of the squares are sold it will spell out FUNDaFIELD."

And when all the squares are sold, they will have raised $100,000. Other fundraisers have included a bake sale and a rummage sale.

Over time, the Weisses recruited friends and fellow athletes to help with FUNDaFIELD and the project grew by leaps and bounds. Today the group has some 22 directors, three team managers, two scholarship directors and Garrett and Kyle, all working to raise money and build soccer fields.

The dollars were starting to accumulate, and it was getting to be time to put in their first field. But there were still a myriad of logistical problems.

"We started in South Africa, but we didn't know anyone and we weren't sure what to do," Garrett said.

They started searching the Internet for people involved in South Africa, which led them to an e-mail discussion with Saul Garlick, the head of the Student Movement for Real Change. This really started the ball rolling.

"We talked to Saul and he suggested a school in Hluvukani," Kyle recalled.

"We raised $36,000, and we put a field in at the Mdluli High School in Hluvukani and the Manyangana High School in Utah," Garrett said.

FUNDaFIELD handled the financial end in the U.S., and Saul Garlick and the SMRC did the groundwork.

While the group was starting to raise the dollars for a third field, the Weiss brothers decided to see the fruits of their labors. Which led to the formation of the Mdluli World Games, played in June.

"In November of 2007 we talked to Saul about a trip to see the fields we put in and we started talking about a tournament," said Garrett. "We would come and play with the kids in the township. So we started looking for sponsors to help us with it."

Right from the start, things looked good. At first Nike was going to sponsor them, but then it cancelled.

"Eurosport saved us," Garrett said. "They donated equipment, anything we needed."

Other companies like Little Feet also pitched in. Little Feet donated balls for the tourney as well as 3,500 extras to give away to those who came to watch. Coke promised a truck full of cold drinks for the athletes and fans in between games.

With the tournament a go, the FUNDaFIELD members had to figure out how to get themselves to South Africa for the event.

"Most of the team wanted to go and those of us who went paid for the trip ourselves," said Kyle. "None of the donation money was used to get us there."

The trip was an eye opener for them.

"We didn't know what to expect," said Kyle. "We all knew South Africa was a poor country. We thought everyone would be begging, living in grass huts. But that wasn't the case. Sure there were some people who asked for money but most everyone was nice and very thankful. We felt welcomed, we didn't feel threatened at all."

"It was the same way when we got to Mdluli," he added. "I had seen pictures of Mdluli and it looked like a pretty good school; there were kids wearing nice uniforms. I asked why we needed to build them a soccer field."

He found the reality of the situation to be different from the pictures.

"There was one kid who was wearing a really nice soccer shirt and it looked cool. And then he wore it the next day and the next day. I realized it was the best that he owned," he said.

The team members visited South Africa for two-and-a-half weeks, during which time they went to Hluvukani to see the fields they built and to play in the Mdluli World Games.

"Pulling up at the school was amazing," Garrett said. "It was a weekend so there shouldn't have been any kids there - but there were already some waiting. We talked to the principal and got a pick-up game started."

He smiled and added, "I don't know how the word spread but there were hundreds of people showing up and it wasn't even the tournament yet."

The members of the American team stayed with local residents. Both Weisses agreed it was an amazing and sobering experience. On their Web site they post the statistics about Africa and they pull no punches. They talk about the high infant mortality rate, and the number of children likely to lose a parent to HIV/AIDS.

"On the way out to Hluvukani there was a trailer with a sign that said 'tombstones,' and there were people lined up to get them," remembered Kyle.

"In the house we stayed in, there was a ditch outside that we walked by every day. We didn't find out until later that it was a burial pit," added Garrett.

Houses were made of cinder blocks crumbling with age; in one home lights couldn't be turned off because the wiring was bad. And the plumbing facilities were different from what the brothers were used to.

"We took our baths in these little buckets of water," said Kyle. "You just sort of scooped the water on yourself to wash."

"I think I never washed from here to here (knees to neck), but somehow they stay really clean," Garrett noted. "And it's a dusty, dirty place."

Despite the warm reception they received, the visitors were not blind to the dangers for a group of young Americans traveling abroad.

"We weren't allowed out at night," Garrett said, "and there were some areas where people had bars and electric fences around their houses."

The prevalence of the AIDS virus also presented concerns.

"If anyone got a cut during a game they were rushed off the field and an SMRC doctor would take care of them," Kyle said.

Still the brothers found themselves astounded by the sense of community they encountered and the excitement over the soccer fields and the Mdluli World Games.

"There were three teams of boys and girls from the local schools and they all got jerseys," Garrett said. "We played on the teams with them and had a great time."

If the FUNDaFIELD members were surprised by the turnout at their arrival, they were stunned by the mass of people who came for the tournament itself.

"There had to be hundreds, maybe more than a thousand people who came to watch and be a part of it," Kyle said. "Coke had this massive truck out there with these big speakers and during half time they played music. People were out on the field dancing - it was like a huge party."

Garrett reflected on the similarities between the excitement they saw at their tournament and that of the Angolese fans at World Cup.

"This tournament was the biggest thing in that community," he said. "The sense of hope and enjoyment ... they just seemed so happy. Everyone was really into the game. Soccer has such a big impact in the communities in Africa."

Over the course of its two-and-a-half weeks in South Africa, the FUNDaFIELD crew visited Capetown, Johannesburg and a number of townships like Hluvukani. They visited in homes, played soccer in the streets of Langa Township, went on safari and then returned to the U.S. emboldened by what they had already accomplished and energized to do more.

The group is continuing to work on selling squares to finish the funding of its third field and to begin funding a fourth. Garrett said although they are continuing to build fields in South Africa, their long-term goal is to expand to other countries in Africa, perhaps even into Angola one day.

They are also working to fund a scholarship for an African youth named Lucas Lee, whom they met during their recent trip.

"Lucas was great," Kyle said. "He was a leader for the kids there. One of directors, Jake Becker, really got to be friends with him. So we want to help him."

The FUNDaFIELD plan is to raise the funds to send Lucas to a leadership council, as well as provide him a four-year education at the University of Pretoria.

"That costs about $4,000 a year," said Kyle.

Kyle said when they were in Africa, they realized everything they have accomplished is just the beginning.

"We helped like one community out of 10 million. There's so much more we need to do. That's why we've kept the pace up since we got back," he said. "We wish everyone could go and see what we've seen."

The Weisses have posted a short video on their Web site, as well as on YouTube.com.

One question the brothers often get asked when discussing FUNDaFIELD is "Why soccer fields?" Kyle said people want to know why they don't put aim their fundraising toward ending poverty or ending AIDS.

His answer: "There are dozens of agencies out there working on the problem of AIDS. Others on hunger. If we give them a soccer field it gives them some enjoyment. It lets them think of something other than the harshness of their lives."

Garrett pointed out that life expectancies are low in Africa, partly because of the lack of options for young people.

"We wanted to keep the kids off the streets and in school, so a field at a high school is an incentive to get them back into school and out onto the soccer field," he said.

"Living here we take for granted that there's like nine sports complexes around here, we have access to equipment, training, things these people don't have," Kyle added. "We can help with that."

Their Web site has a statement that helps answer the question of why, plus gives insight into their passion for their commitment: "FUNDaFIELD can't cure disease. FUNDaFIELD can't fill every empty stomach. FUNDaFIELD can put a smile on a face, where there wasn't one before."

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