by Senior Airman Mindy Bloem
506th Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs
KIRKUK REGIONAL AIR BASE, Iraq — A Peterson Airman used a mutual love of sports to win the hearts and minds of Iraq’s youth.
Since soccer has long played a part in the lives of many Iraqis, it is no wonder that Senior Airman Robert Evans, 21st Operations Support Squadron airfield management shift lead and Kirkuk Regional Air Base’s Rising Four club vice president turned to the sport as a way to aid in building relationships with the local community.
Evans and two other members of the club saw their idea come to fruition when they passed out soccer balls and school supplies to Iraqi children at Al-Harmezah Elementary School in Kirkuk Jan. 5, 2010.
The club’s council members came up with the idea for the humanitarian effort during one of their monthly meetings. The idea was voted into action and dubbed, “Operation Soccer Ball.”
It wasn’t long before support and donations from U.S. companies and churches came pouring in.
Airman Evans said that some organizations even opted to send money for the purchase of the items if they couldn’t actually send the soccer balls.
Once the donations came in (the first shipment totaling 72 soccer balls) and people were contacted about the idea, everything seemed to happen all at once according to Airman Evans.
He said he wanted to pass out the items personally but wasn’t sure if he and his fellow members were going to be able to go until Col. Leonard Dick, 506th Air Expeditionary Group commander, got involved.
“The commander asked if we would like to hand the soccer balls out ourselves, and we were all for it,” Airman Evans said. “It was truly an awesome experience to be able to get out there and see the smiles on the kids’ faces. It was by far the best experience of my life.”
Being personally involved made a difference to the other two Airmen of the Rising Four Club as well.
“It was like we were handing out huge Christmas presents rather than soccer balls and school supplies,” said Airman 1st Class Stasha Lenz, 506th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron and club secretary. “It felt amazing to know that in some tiny way, we are helping rebuild this country one child at a time.”
The president of the club, Airman 1st Class Joshua Thomas, 506th ECES, said he would remember the day for the rest of his life.
“I am overwhelmed with pride now that I understand what these people are getting from us being here,” he said. “This experience also puts things in perspective for me. I remember I would complain about living conditions back in the States, but now that I’ve seen where most of these kids call home, all I am is appreciative.
“These kids are living in poverty and just the little things normal American kids would throw away after a couple uses, these kids were treating like gold. They were very thankful.”
Airman Evans recalled being given a baseball in his youth and said it helped foster a love for the sport which stayed with him into adulthood. He hopes this humanitarian effort will leave the same impression on the Iraqi children.
“We are building a good stable relationship with the locals starting with the children,” Airman Lenz said. “We are showing that we care about their lives and education. We want to enable them so they can one day stand up on their own.”
Due to lack of space, the members said they weren’t able to hand out all of the soccer balls that they received this last time off base but hope the next rotation carries on what they started.
Airman Lenz said she hopes it translates into a solid foundation for the future generation of Iraqis.