Most people lionize soccer players, but not Peter Harms.
His hero is the guy making the soccer balls – specifically Tim Jahnigen, who invented, manufactures and distributes a virtually indestructible soccer ball to needy children around the world through the One World Futbol Project.
Made of a ethylene-vinyl acetate, or PopFoam, a material similar to what’s used to make Crocs sandals, the soccer balls Jahnigen invented are much more durable than traditional hand-stitched leather balls. Durability is especially important in Third World countries where the hard-packed rocky patches of ground stand in for soccer fields.
Regular balls can’t stand up to that kind of punishment and quickly pop and deflate. It’s something Harms had seen firsthand on trips to Africa.
“Your driving through the Kalahari and you see these bush kids and the soccer balls … People are literally tying shopping bags and pieces of plastic together and wrapping them with twine,” said Harms.
When he read about the One World Futbol Project last month in a New York Times article reprinted in the News, a light went off.
“It was one of those brain waves you get going home saying, ‘We have got to get into this,’” said Harms.
His idea was simple.
Harms, a teacher at Hidden Valley Elementary School, dug out an old hotdog machine a parent dropped off a year ago and tasked some of his students with selling hotdogs to raise money to buy the soccer balls.
The balls don’t come cheap. They sell for US$39.50, but because Harms was doing it as a “non-profit” he got them for half price.
Not only are they expensive to buy; because they can’t be deflated they are also expensive to ship. However, Harms has a plan for that too.
“Whitehorse is a rich place and there’s a whack of government and private people that fly all the time to Third World countries,” he said.
The idea is to get people to take the balls with them on vacation and give them out to children in need. All Harms asks is that they take a picture of the person that they’re giving them too.
He’s set up a map of the world in the school so the students can track where the balls go.
“I’m cruising the Caribbean this year and I bet you on many of those islands I will be able to find street kids, so I will be taking four or five different balls for the four or five different islands that we go to,” said Harms.
The idea is to help kids in need, but it will also educate the students at Hidden Valley about poverty. That’s something that isn’t easy to do, he said.
“Kids in Canada don’t understand the concept of poor,” said Harms. “They’re poor if they don’t have a Porsche, but over there, they’re so poor that they’re playing in bare feet, in the desert sand, with a bunch of garbage tied together with string, and that’s their soccer ball.”
When one of his students asked if they could keep one of the soccer balls for the school, Harms had a hard time explaining why they couldn’t.
“I said, ‘You have a room full of soccer balls,’ and he said, ‘But we don’t have these.’”
“Some kids get it, but some have to go to the level of kicking a flat soccer ball around.”
But that’s understandable said Harms. It wasn’t until that he saw poverty first hand that he really came to understand it.
A few years ago, he went to spent six weeks in Kenya, where his daughter had been living for two years.
They saw both sides of the country, the opulent hotels of the capital, ringed with barbed wire and broken glass to “keep the rabble out,” and the hardscrabble lands near the Ethiopian border, where his daughter was working with African Inland Missions.
One day while working at the mechanic shop at the mission station he brought in bottles of Coke for all the workers.
“I thought these guys never drink Coke,” said Harms. “I love Coke in glass bottles and I love African Coke because it’s still made with cane sugar.”
Everyone accepted the drinks but no one would open them.
“I was the only guy drinking Coke so I turned to the missionary and I said, “What the heck’s going on, have I offended somebody again?
“Crazy white people are always offending people because you don’t know the culture.”
Turns out the workers weren’t offended, they were just saving the Coke to resell once they got home.
“They’d rather get 50 cents for it or 10 cents for it as opposed to just sitting down and enjoying a Coke,” said Harms.
Even something as simple as flying the kite he brought with him quickly attracted more than 50 kids, who all waited patiently in line for a chance to fly it.
“Ten soccer balls in that town would have been spectacular,” said Harms. “One soccer ball in that town would have been spectacular.”
Every hotdog day, Hidden Valley raises enough money to buy about five soccer balls.
The school has ordered 20 balls that Harms hopes will arrive before people go on Christmas vacation.
“I don’t know if we can keep up with demand. Kids are still eating hot dogs,” said Harms.
Anyone wants to get involved with the project can call Harms at Hidden Valley Elementary at 667-8164.
Contact Josh Kerr at