By Elizabeth Pfeffer
For the San Mateo County Times
Posted: 03/23/2010 08:33:43 PM PDT
Updated: 03/23/2010 11:34:53 PM PDT
Mike Mitchell is chasing more than 2,000 soccer balls to Africa.
Mitchell’s nonprofit organization, Project Play Africa, brings the balls to one of the poorest regions in the world, sub-Saharan Africa, where he spent time in the early 1980s as a Peace Corps volunteer.
The former college soccer player and two old friends from Chico State were scheduled to depart from San Francisco International Airport early Monday morning on a journey to Africa, where the balls have already been shipped and are waiting to be distributed.
Instead, they spent the day in a Radisson Hotel near the airport waiting for a late afternoon replacement flight to Dubai, where they would connect to Ghana, then drive to the small West African country of Benin.
The soccer balls were shipped last month in 90 boxes, and Mitchell, 52, said he was eager to renew the mission that has become an extension of his Peace Corps days.
When the former Burlingame resident prepared for a two-year stint in Niger in 1983, he packed his bags with 15 soccer balls instead of clothes. A pal urged him to do so, insisting it would make all the difference in the world for the community he served.
“The village became more alive, and I started to think about how all that happened,” Mitchell said.
He vowed to return with more soccer balls and eventually made it a full-scale philanthropy effort.
In 2008, Project Play Africa brought more than 1,000 soccer balls to Niger. Within six months, the under-21 national team had qualified for an international tournament.
Soccer has had other, unexpected results. It helped clean up Niger’s countryside, which was overrun with litter and plastic bags, he said. People collected the bags to make rope for soccer nets, and suddenly the litter problem was dramatically improved, he said.
So far, Project Play Africa’s efforts have been largely word-of-mouth, with fundraisers held at Behan’s Irish Pub in Burlingame, which is owned by Mitchell’s parents. He’s hoping a large sponsor will help them take the organization to the next level.
Mitchell has lived in Brazil since 1994, running a health retreat company called Body and Soul Adventures. He stays with family in San Mateo County when he’s in town.