There are so many life lessons, I felt, going on this volunteer trip that athletics can teach young kids in a fun, engaging environment. —Tracy Evans
During Tracy Evans’ first volunteer trip to Africa, sports were an afterthought.
“Our group brought some sports equipment with us,” said the three-time Olympian. “We just played games with them. Some they were familiar with, like soccer, and some were new to them like baseball, softball and volleyball.”
Evans, who spent more than a decade living and training in Park City as an aerial athlete with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team, said she noticed something interesting as they played with the children in the orphanage.
“When we played soccer, something they were familiar with, the girls and the boys already had preconceived ideas on who should be doing what,” Evans said. “The girls basically stood still; they looked like orange cones, and the boys ran around them. They were very submissive.”
But that dynamic changed drastically when the volunteers introduced sports that the children had never seen.
“And yet, when we pulled out baseball, softball and T-ball equipment, they’d never even heard of the sport, or seen it played, so they had no preconceived ideas on who should play the sport or how it should be played,” Evans said. “So watching them both learn, boys and girls, they were on equal playing field. It was amazing.”
Maybe most interesting was what Evans saw from the girls engaged in the games.
“The girls excelled when they didn’t feel like there was any preconceived idea or cultural idea on who should be playing the sport,” she said. “For me, it all came back to how boys and girls should be interacting together. Having been an Olympic athlete, everything I learned through sports, I was brought up to believe that it didn’t matter if you were a boy or a girl.”
As Evans reflected on her experiences as a volunteer, she also began realizing just what a life filled with athletics had meant to her own evolution. Sports had given her discipline, confidence and opportunity, just to name a few.
As a sports casting director in Los Angeles, she feels the rewards of her athletic efforts every day. And she began to understand that simply “being born in this country gives us endless amount of opportunity” that those born in Third World countries do not have.
“They don’t have a Boys and Girls Club,” she said. “They don’t have YMCAs; they don’t have after-school programs. So unless we go over and try to help provide these types of opportunities, they just simply don’t have them.”
And those who are deprived of recreational and competitive athletic opportunities aren’t just deprived of idle hobbies. They are deprived of all the life-long, sometimes life-altering benefits organized sports offer those who participate.
“There are so many life lessons, I felt, going on this volunteer trip that athletics can teach young kids in a fun, engaging environment,” Evans said. “That’s when I basically came back and founded Kids Play International.”
That was 2008, and Evans has taken what she saw on those makeshift fields and turned it into a nonprofit that uses “sport as a catalyst to promote gender equity in communities impacted by genocide.”
“Genocide adds another layer of inequity, of hardship on women especially,” Evans said. “To me, the trauma they lived through on top of what Third World countries are already dealing with in the first place.”
The children that Kids Play International volunteers work with have experienced horrific tragedy, including losing family members to ethnic or religiously motivated violence. Talking with the young people about their experiences prompts discussions about how to deal with hardship, racial and political differences, as well as gender issues.
“They learn, you’ve got to embrace everyone, even if you disagree with them,” Evans said. “We talk in our program about conflict, about how to deal with conflict. We talk about how they can talk with one another to resolve issues, rather than the conflict of not knowing how to resolve problems and just discriminating instead.” They also focus on the power of forgiveness and redemption, a lesson Evans said competition teaches athletes every day.
“We stress to these kids that if you make the wrong choice, it’s OK,” she said. “Everyone makes mistakes. It’s how you recover from your mistakes. And they’re given a thought process about how you want to do things differently down the road. You learn from it.” She said this is a lesson that resonated with her even before founding Kids Play International.
“I learned way more from my failures in competition than I ever did from winning an event,” she said. “It’s OK to fall and stumble and struggle. It’s just how you have to make sure you pick yourself up, how you conduct yourself.”
Evans relies on the generosity of volunteers, as well as athlete ambassadors like four-time Olympian Emily Cook, to raise money to fund the trips where the games work their magic.
Cook, who retired from competition after competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, has taken two trips with Kids Play International.
“It’s an amazing experience,” Cook said. “Being an athlete, we spend so much time on the hill focusing on ourselves. To have the opportunity to go to Africa, to go to Rwanda and interact with these kids and help them learn life lessons through sports is the most rewarding thing in the world.”
Last Thursday, Evans persuaded actress Amy Paffrath to bobsled at the Utah Olympic Park as part of Kids Play International’s Dare4Charity fundraiser.
Evans said that the athletes and actors help spread the word about the work the group does, as well as raise much-needed funding, while most of the bulk of the volunteering is done by ordinary people who are just looking for ways to improve the lives of others. Each year KPI organizes trips to Rwanda and Cambodia, countries trying to heal from genocide, with the next opportunity coming in Rwanda on May 30-June 11.
For Evans, one of the most moving aspects of listening to the experiences of those who take the time to volunteer with Kids Play International is how it was not what they expected.
“They think they’re going to go over to hopefully teach the kids something, and it ends up that the kids teach them something,” Evans said. “They learn more from the kids about being resilient and dealing with trauma and just being happy. One of the biggest misconceptions is that people think, ‘This is going to make me sad.’ ” Instead, what volunteers find are young people who are receptive to new ideas and who are grateful for their generosity.
But these children are also full of joy, despite lacking what many of us feel like we’d need for a comfortable life.
“They have,” she said with a smile, “pretty simple lives.”
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