August 31, 2010
My favorite quote is by the English author Sydney Smith, who once said, "It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little."
When I first came across that quote a number of years ago, I decided then and there I wanted to be the personification of those words. And though I have failed miserably at times, this statement is taped to the mirror in my bathroom as a daily reminder to strive to give something even if it’s just a smile or an encouraging word.
Or a pencil.
I’ll explain. A couple months ago I was in South Africa for the World Cup. As I planned my trip, I wanted to supplement the soccer with some volunteer work. I have a friend who is a South African native and a teacher in the townships. So I spent some time with her in one of the township "schools" a term I use very loosely teaching the kids English. I’m limited to about 700 words for this column, so in the interest of space, let me just assure you of this: I learned a hell of a lot more in those couple days than I taught.
As my vacation came to an end, my mind raced back to the quote hanging on the mirror in my bathroom. These kids were using a geography book from 1982! Half of their own continent had been rerouted and renamed since its publication. What could I do?
I told my teacher friend I wanted to help. "What do they need the most?" I asked her.
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The answer shocked me: "Pencils."
"Seriously? You don’t want money, or books, or computers? What about a chalkboard, or desks?"
"Nope. Just pencils. And maybe some sharpeners."
She went on to tell me that township children cannot attend school without something to write with which their families usually can’t afford to buy. It’s some ridiculous ruling that didn’t fall with the apartheid government. And, in short, a lack of pencils more often than not translates into a lack of education for these kids.
Pencils. What a painfully easy way to change a child’s life.
In addition to a vuvuzela, I brought this information home with me. And this month, as I signed my team up for fall-league soccer, I threw out this question to my teammates: "Would you guys be willing to donate a box of pencils as part of your playing fee?"
The answer was a resounding yes.
My friend Trent Levesque , who I have played with for years, was the first to respond to my email inquiry. "What an awesome idea," he said. "I’ll bring a Costco-sized supply of them!"
And the rest of the team followed suit.
After our game last week, Trent told me how he remembered hearing a speech by the actor Sean Connery. Connery was being presented with a lifetime achievement award and he told his audience that his first big break came when he was five the year he learned to read. He believed he would not have amounted to much, and certainly not be receiving that award, had he not been taught to read.
"Think about that," Trent instructed me. "The pencils we send to these kids might just mean the difference between a child learning to read, and going on to become something great, or becoming another township statistic."
I’m proud to say my soccer team has relished the idea of being a bunch of pencil pushers. Each game I continue to get more, "These are from my co-worker. I told her about this and she wanted to contribute," one teammate told me.
So while this week’s piece is more about schooling than soccer, it has always been my goal with this column to find the humanity in sport and tell the story. The moral of this week’s story being: My soccer team might only be doing a little, but we’re doing something.
Mr. Smith would be pleased.
If you’d like to donate pencils, please email Amy at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amy Roberts is the public relations director for Park City Medical Center. In a former life she worked in TV news, both as a reporter and sports anchor. She has bagged peaks on six continents, kayaked the Zambezi and Nile rivers, swam with great white sharks in South Africa and tracked mountain gorillas in Rwanda. In her spare time, Amy can be found skiing, mountain biking, hiking, running, and playing soccer.