Berkeley company brings smiles to kids around the world, one soccer ball at a time – The Mercury News

BERKELEY – The inspiration was a heart-wrenching report on traumatized refugee children from Darfur living in conditions so horrific they were spinning rubbish coiled up like an improvised soccer ball.

What if there was an all-terrain balloon, thought Tim Jahnigen, capable of lasting even in the most difficult conditions and able to be distributed in areas of extreme poverty?

And when an international rock star with a social conscience heard of Jahnigen’s daring idea, he issued a daring challenge.

Let’s go, Sting told him.

The result: One World Futbol, ​​a durable balloon designed to never flatten or wear out – putting a smile on countless children in desperate parts of the world as well as some underprivileged youth in the United States.

“All kids just want to play, whether they’re born in Beverly Hills, Belfast or Beirut,” Jahnigen said. “Gambling is in our DNA. It allows them to do that. The magic is not in the ball. It’s in the children who play with it.

As football fans around the world focus on the World Cup in Brazil, the Berkeley-based One World Futbol project – founded by Jahnigen and his wife, Lisa Tarver – will soon be shipping its millionth ball.

That’s why in areas struggling with conflict or hardship – places like Burundi, Haiti and Malawi – you can now find the blue and yellow balls thrown by children seeking temporary escape from unimaginable challenges.

Or as Sting put it in a promotional video on the web, “We’re bringing the power of play to the kids who need it most. “

Images on CNN

The memory of the 2006 CNN news clip has never left Jahnigen, an entrepreneur with broad interests including that of a music lyricist. Football is the most popular sport in the world in part because all you really need to play is a ball.

But even that may be out of reach for most of the 1 billion children living in poverty. And Jahnigen has learned that what often passes for soccer balls in developing countries are plastic bags tightened with coarse string. Desperate children even resort to playing with stones when nothing else is available.

Two years after seeing the clip, Jahnigen and Tarver were at breakfast with Sting, who was in the Bay Area on a concert tour. They had become friends when Jahnigen helped produce Sting’s Rainforest Fund benefit concerts.

Sting told them he was helping to build a soccer field for the children of the Gaza Strip. Jahnigen mentioned his notion of an indestructible bullet.

“The conversation continued and then Sting said, ‘Wait a minute. Tell me more about this ball. Why haven’t you already done it? You have to do it now, and I’ll pay for the development, ”recalled Jahnigen, 54.

Footballs have always been essentially an air-filled bladder covered with a protective surface.

“And if you make a hole in it, the bullet becomes a trash can,” Jahnigen added.

His solution? An innovative design with a closed cell reticulated foam material similar to that used in Crocs shoes and sandals. When a ball is crushed or punctured, it simply reverts to a round shape. It is not intended for elite competitions, like the World Cup. But it works for the children of the world, who often play in dirt fields, avoiding sharp obstacles.

“It’s a little hard to think of a softball that isn’t inflated and that doesn’t have a bladder and valve,” Tarver said. “It’s a whole new technology.

The ball went into production in 2010, with the name Sting, a reference to his song “One World (Not Three)”.

Big world, big mission

Giants pitcher Jeremy Affeldt has done charity work in the fight against child poverty in countries like Kenya, Guatemala and Haiti. The problem with sending regular soccer balls overseas, he said, is that they rarely last long.

“They get caught by a stray dog, or hit thorns or barbed wire and they burst,” Affeldt said.

But after hearing about the One World Futbol, ​​it was sold after rolling over a balloon with his truck – over and over again – and not inflicting any damage.

“It’s just a great way to keep the kids playing,” Affeldt said. “When you are in a situation of poverty, you are immediately put in an adult situation because you are managing for your life. And you shouldn’t have to, especially when you’re a kid. They should play, imagine and dream.

Today there are 850,000 One World Futbols in 165 countries. Chevrolet has signed on as a founding sponsor to distribute 1.5 million bullets in war affected areas, refugee camps and disaster areas. The balloons are also sold online for $ 39.50 as part of the ‘Buy One, Give One’ program, in which the donated balloon is donated to organizations such as aid groups, schools and orphanages. The idea is that each ball can be used by 30 children.

“A million balls might sound like a lot, but it’s really not in terms of global need when you look at the number of children living in abject poverty,” said Tarver, 54, whose nonprofit works includes a five-year stay in El Salvador. “We could ship a million bales for 10 years, and it would still be just a drop in the bucket. It’s a big world.

Play Oakland

Most American women, said Julie Foudy, alumnus of Stanford and former captain of the United States’ national women’s football team, can’t appreciate the importance of a single ball.

“It’s only when you go overseas,” said Foudy, who said his kids were playing with a One World Futbol in their dead end. “Then you go to Africa and you play Soweto with shards of glass on the floor. Then you get it. Having a ball that can handle it all means so much.

It also means a lot to the children of Oakland who are part of Soccer Without Borders, a program helping refugees from 26 countries adjust to their new homes. Ben Gucciardi, the founder, said the high-end balls won’t last on concrete surfaces where they play often, even if they can afford it.

“We are on a tight budget,” Gucciardi said. “So having balls that don’t wear out or flatten out is a plus. Which is to say, these kids are happy enough to just have fun.”

Nearby, Nyunt Khin, a 16-year-old from Myanmar, was kicking it along with five other boys.

“If you step on it, the ball just comes back,” he said with a smile. “It’s perfect.”

Elliott Almond and Alex Pavlovic contributed to this report. For more information visit


What: Durable, waterproof soccer ball designed to never flatten out. About 850,000, both adults and juveniles, have been introduced in 165 countries, and in quantities of 5,000 or more in 60 of those countries.
Who: Husband and wife team Tim Jahnigen and Lisa Tarver founded the Berkeley-based One World Futbol project, which they describe as a for-profit company with a mission.
Why: Children in developing countries often resort to makeshift soccer balls because they don’t have access to real balls or because they flatten out quickly under difficult conditions.
Partners: Music icon Sting funded the development of the ball. Chevrolet has a sponsorship agreement to ship 1.5 million balls worldwide and distribute 5,300 in Brazil during the World Cup.
Design: Made from a material similar to that used in Crocs shoes and sandals, the ball does not need to be inflated with a pump because there is no air bladder. Thus, it will not burst if it is punctured or flattened, and will instead return to its round shape.
The Name: One World Futbol takes its name, in part, from Sting’s song “One World (Not Three)”. In addition, football is known in most countries of the world as football or futbol.
Quote: “The goal of the One World Futbol Project is to distribute indestructible soccer balls where they are needed – in poor areas, refugee camps, conflict zones and UN hot spots around the world. “Sting said in a promotional video on the Web.

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