By Kevin Casey, DS Public Affairs
When you are a helicopter door gunner for combat search-and-rescue missions, you do not always have time to hand out soccer balls to local kids. That was Ryan Renuart's experience during two trips to Iraq and two trips to Afghanistan with the U.S. Air Force and Air Force Reserves.
During his third trip to Afghanistan, this time as a DS special agent and assistant regional security officer (ARSO) at U.S. Embassy Kabul, Renuart was having the same experience. Long days and heavy responsibilities kept him busy in the logistics/procurement/armored vehicles office.
"I started looking for a way to get involved in some of the good-will work that is out there," Renuart said.
Renuart remembered his dad, another Air Force veteran, had gotten to know some members of the Anschutz family of Colorado while serving at NORAD. The Anschutz family has an entertainment group that owns the Houston Dynamo and the LA Galaxy, two Major League Soccer teams.
"I asked my father if he could reach out to them and see if they would be willing to sponsor some of our sports diplomacy outreach programs here," Renuart said.
In response, the Houston Dynamo donated a mountain of soccer gear including cleats, uniforms, T-shirts, socks, shorts, and 100 soccer balls. Adidas also sent equipment and uniforms. U.S. Northern Command packed everything in 14 big boxes, and Federal Express shipped it for free.
"Go big or go home," Renuart said.
With all this gear in hand, Renuart teamed up with fellow Kabul ARSO�•and former collegiate soccer player�•Denise Timmermans, as well as the Embassy Public Affairs Section to coordinate three sports diplomacy programs in the fall of 2010: a soccer clinic for young girls, a soccer event at an orphanage for boys, and outfitting a girls' soccer team.
Soccer Clinic for Girls
When Timmermans showed up for the first soccer event at a girls' school in the Khoshi District of Logar Province on September 22, 2010, what she saw broke her heart.
"We brought 40 soccer balls," she said. "When we passed them out, there was a mad rush by all the girls to grab a ball and hide it. The girls wanted their own ball so badly. They thought if they didn't keep and hide the ball they were given, they’d never see it again. So initially we had a hard time convincing them to relax enough to put down their ball and make a pass."
"A couple of girls put the balls in their backpacks, afraid they would lose them if they put them down. I was struck by how little they have and that something so small could mean so much," said Embassy Kabul Assistant Press Attaché Mireille Zieseniss. She helped coordinate the visit with U.S. Embassy District Support Team Officer Gordon Jacobs who works with the local Provincial Reconstruction Team.
This was a combined military/civilian effort. U.S. Air Force Col. Martin Bannon in the Embassy Kabul Military Liaison Office provided logistical support. Monica Frey of the Embassy’s Political-Military Section and Sofia Khilji from Embassy Political Affairs also provided significant help.
"Logar is a pretty kinetic area. The girls' school is only 150-meters walk from a combat outpost (COP). I think for a lot of these girls, this was the first time they had ever been exposed to Western women not wearing military uniforms," Zieseniss said.
On the way over, the team from Embassy Kabul stopped at COP Sanchez to pick up four Army women, all lifelong soccer players like Timmermans. As soon as the group reached the school, they realized that few of the Afghan girls had ever played soccer. Most wore open-toed sandals.
"The idea had been to do a soccer clinic, but in the end it looked more like a recess break," Timmermans said. They still managed to cover some soccer fundamentals with the 40 to 50 girls who participated.
It was not really about the soccer, though. "The reality is most of these girls will never play soccer again," Zieseniss said. "But they've had exposure now, and maybe the seed was planted in one or two of them that there is something else out there. Three or four of them said they dream of playing on the Afghan women's soccer team someday."
"I think it makes a difference for little girls to realize, ‘Hey, I can grow up and be a good soccer player and play for my country,'" Renuart said.
Because of his gender, Renuart was not allowed to participate and only saw the children as they left the event. "The little girls, as they were coming out, were all big smiles. They were happy," he said.
That first event served as a proof of principle for the RSO soccer outreach concept. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry enthusiastically agreed to participate in the next event on November 6, 2010. "That was a big help," Renuart said. "It received a lot of exposure for the rest of the country team and meant good publicity for the RSO office and their efforts."
Kabul's Tahia Maskan Orphanage is home to 350 adolescent and teenage boys. Nearly 90 percent are enrolled in the State Department’s English Access Program. English, computer science, and other skills learned at the orphanage will help the boys find translator positions with local NGOs or jobs on the Afghan economy as they transition to adulthood.
There are so many soccer teams among the boys at Tahia Maskan that the orphanage regularly holds tournaments, and Renuart decided there were enough donations from his connections back home to outfit the top two teams for the championship game.
"Both my supervisor, Deputy RSO Tom VanDenBrink, and RSO Greg Hays were very supportive and cut me loose to do some scouting trips to go out there and do advance work on the venue," Renuart said. "But the heavy lifting was done by public affairs. They made it very easy to put this thing together.” The team enlisted the help of English Language Coordinator Stephen Hanchey and Public Affairs Section Office Management Specialist Donna Lieberson, both of whom do volunteer work with the orphanage.
On the day of the tournament, the two teams lined up, dressed from head to toe in their uniforms, including professional-style cleats. The uniforms and shoes were delivered earlier in the week so they could be sized appropriately.
"You would have thought that this was the World Cup, they were so excited," Zieseniss said.
A couple of kids from the English-language program served as emcees. Ambassador Eikenberry gave a speech urging the kids to "study hard, dream big, and never give up." He also did the coin toss, and he handed out medals and trophies to both teams after the game. The Americans left behind 30 new soccer balls for the facility.
"It was really a nice day," Zieseniss said. "It wasn't a formal, highly scripted event. It was just about the kids."
Afghan General Director of Orphanages Mazari Safa toured the ambassador around the facility at halftime. Safa served as the Deputy Minister of Women’s Affairs from 2004 to 2008. From 1999 to 2003, she worked with the International Rescue Committee.
"This event is a great example of public/private partnership, and I hope to encourage more like it," the ambassador said. The Embassy also hopes to be able to make some improvements to the orphanage physical plant and soccer field in the near future.
More to Come
Renuart left Afghanistan in January for an ARSO tour in Mexico City, but the soccer outreach he started at RSO Kabul will go on.
Before departing, Renuart worked with Adidas, a sponsor of the Houston Dynamo, to provide complete uniforms for a girls' soccer team in Kabul. "Every girl got a box with her name and number on it," he said. "Each box contained shoes, jerseys, and gloves for when it's cold out. Adidas really stepped up to help this girls' team," Renuart said.
On his fifth tour of Iraq or Afghanistan, Renuart finally got to hand out some soccer balls—and a lot more. It felt good, and it supported the mission of the Embassy in Afghanistan. "This was a chance for Afghans to see another example of how Americans really care about their country and its people," he said.
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