This is part of our new series "Gen: Change," in partnership with Youth Service America, featuring stories from the 25 most influential and powerful young people in the world. Click here to read more about Kyle and his amazing story.
"His majesty will see you now."
Admittedly, standing in the palace of one of the last true monarchs in the world was a bit intimidating, but as the interview progressed, I loosened up a little. After the interview, King Mswati III of Swaziland took pictures with us. Between clicks of the camera, he and I chatted about the World Cup, lamenting the poor performance of most African nations in the tournament. Click. As my mind started to wander, I laughed to myself thinking how great a Facebook picture this would make. Click. I resisted the urge to sprint to the nearest camera and see what I looked like in the viewfinder. In the seemingly endless time between shots, my mind drifted nearly 2,000 miles away to Namuwongo, a slum in Uganda. Click.
This picture is very different than any palace; it is the poorest of the poor and the conditions are horrific... No electricity, no running water, no sanitation system and some of the worst living conditions I have ever seen. Very few Americans have ever traveled this deep, unprotected, into Namuwongo, and yet there I was laughing and posing for a picture with a group of soccer players (or "futballers" as they prefer to be called). Click. It was the night before the big soccer tournament that my organization, FUNDaFIELD, was holding on our new field. Each team wildly waved their team flag while proudly chanting their team name, donning their brand new uniforms and buzzing with excitement because the traditional tournament prize had been purchased -- a goat! At each click of the camera, it amazed me how soccer could break down barriers. These kids didn't see me as some American bringing money, but as a guy with a passion for soccer who wanted to share the game with them. Click.
The younger Ugandan kids hundreds of miles away have a different picture of me. As I was introduced to the 600 primary students at Bulyantetee, the headmaster asked how many of them had ever seen a "mzungu" (white person) before. I was shocked at how few hands went up. For these kids, I must have seemed quite strange -- a longhaired, light-skinned kid with a seemingly unlimited supply of soccer balls. It almost felt like I had become Santa Clause for the day as I promised to return to their school and to work with their community to build a soccer field.
Click, Click, Click. In the six years since FUNDaFIELD was born, our photo timeline has grown and matured exponentially. Upon reexamination of our work, we realized that our soccer fields were having the greatest impact on kids in areas that had recently undergone conflict or some sort of traumatic experience. The therapeutic benefits of sport can be life-changing to children who are former child soldiers, have lost both parents to disease, have been physically or mentally abused or have been through any other traumatic experience. We now use the power of sports to assist in rebuilding lives and communities. The words of Nelson Mandela echoed in my head, "Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination."
Click. Our community-driven projects actively engage those who will benefit from the field in the planning, management and construction process. Whether it's donating bricks for the wall around the field, volunteering to help feed the workers, or hand-clearing the field, these communities that have gone through so much pain take ownership, pride and responsibility in their own soccer fields. This new philosophy has brought us to Uganda, Haiti, Congo, and of course, Swaziland.
My mind snapped back to the palace as the king took one last picture and retreated to his quarters. I knew the photos from today would be incredible, but I also knew that the real shots would come when the young orphans were able to run on their brand new soccer field for the first time. Click.