Mark Wassmer (16), a graduate student in PLNU’s MS-Kinesiology program at the time, was attending a sports medicine conference in Boston when he heard the Surgeon General, Vivek H. Murthy, speak about the importance of physical education and health, especially as it relates to young people. As the latest digital technologies — mobile devices, social media platforms, streaming services, etc. — increasingly crowd our lives, many are being pulled away from healthy physical and outdoor activities, which is adversely affecting health and wellness. While this is a problem for all ages, it can be especially detrimental to children. Spending more time on mobile devices and social media in lieu of organized sports and physical activity can prevent them from learning the importance of fitness and developing a healthier lifestyle from an early age.

Wassmer was struck by the Surgeon General’s call to advocate physical health and activity for young people. As soon as he got back to San Diego in June of 2016 he decided to brainstorm ideas with his friend and fellow PLNU classmate, Matt Montell (16), about how they could serve their communities by bringing health, wellness, and play to children — especially those from the poorest and most disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Mark and I were neighbors in graduate school and he knew that I had done little projects in the past related to traveling and volunteering,” Montell said. “He asked if I would be interested in doing a community service project and I said, ‘Sure.’ So we met in my living room and started Googling ideas. We wanted something that aligned with exercise science and we eventually found the One World Play Project.

The One World Play Project offered us a platform where we could create campaigns to raise money to buy these ultra-durable ‘futbols’ that are designed to last a lifetime of a child.

The One World Play Project is an organization that, according to their website, created the “unpoppable One World Futbol as a solution for kids living in harsh conditions where standard soccer balls don’t last long.” In other words, they created a multi-purpose ball for children that can’t be easily deflated and doesn’t require an air pump.

“The One World Play Project offered us a platform where we could create campaigns to raise money to buy these ultra-durable ‘futbols’ that are designed to last a lifetime of a child,” Montell said. “They are puncture resistant, meaning that if they are chewed up by a dog or stabbed by a mean kid on the block it won’t impact the ball. It’s made of material similar to that of crocs. And there is a valve on the top so you can completely compress the ball if needed, but the valve lets air back into it so a pump isn’t required.”

The One World Play Project provides the durable — and somewhat expensive — balls to any individual or organization that wants to purchase them through their platform for the purposes of donating them to children. While the One World Play Project provides the durable balls, it’s up to the individual or company to fundraise and transport the balls to the children in need. And since the balls are designed to withstand harsh living conditions, they are often donated to children living in poverty all over the world.

The first time Wassmer and Montell worked with One World Play Project they raised enough money for 100 balls from donations all over the country, which equates to benefitting roughly 4,700 children. This turned out to be one of the most successful campaigns ever started in conjunction with the One World Play Project. Because of their success, they decided to become more officially committed to their work of providing these balls, other resources, and education to the many children in need and started their own nonprofit called Have A Ball! Foundation. While they manage this nonprofit, both Wasmer and Montell work full-time jobs. Both work as clinical exercise physiologists; Wassmer at Bay Sport in the Bay Area, and Montell at San Diego Sports Medicine locally.

One of the reasons for their initial success in raising so much money was that they decided to customize each ball in order to add a personal element to the donations. Every donor who submitted money for a ball was asked to provide an idea for the artwork that would be added to one side of the ball. This means that Wassmer and Montell, in conjunction with some artist friends they had, decorate one half of every ball they donate depending on what specific donors want, from an inspiring phrase to a meaningful image. Their goal was to make sure that each ball communicated something personal and unique to the children about the donor. And once the children received the ball, they would decorate the other half with a phrase or image that was meaningful to them. Wassmer and Montell take pictures of the children’s artwork and designs and share them with donors, establishing a personal connection between the donors and the children.

Wassmer and Montell raised enough money for 100 balls from donations all over the country, which equates to benefitting roughly 4,700 children. This turned out to be one of the most successful campaigns ever started in conjunction with the One World Play Project.

As for how Wassmer and Montell measure the success of their non-profit organization Have A Ball! Foundation, they have a relatively simple metric.

“The big way that Matt and I determine our success is by providing happiness,” Wassmer said. “We want to see how many smiles we can generate on children’s faces. It’s an easy way to see if we’ve been successful. These children are the future and we know they haven’t been blessed with the easiest start to life in their past and present, but we really want to provide them with materials to succeed in the future as opposed to accepting their fate as the ‘underprivileged’ and ‘impoverished.’ We really want to remind them to be in the present, enjoy their lives as kids, and learn from their experiences so that they may flourish in the future. Most of our greatest learning experiences were from making mistakes ourselves.”

Related Article: Discover how important play is for children.

Wassmer recalls how he once saw an Instagram post that really struck him.

“I saw an Instagram quote once that said, ‘What if the cure for cancer is trapped inside the mind of someone who can’t afford an education?’ This thought absolutely destroys me inside as a lot of us have many opportunities in education but choose to take them for granted while these kids walk miles to a school every day with floors of dirt and lacking basic resources for learning just to get an education,” Wassmer shared.

We want to see how many smiles we can generate on children’s faces. It’s an easy way to see if we’ve been successful.

The health, social, and psychological benefits of play are many. As Wassmer explains, play and physical activity can reduce and prevent depression, diminish the likelihood for chronic issues like diabetes and obesity, and help children develop skills related to communication, dexterity, strength, muscle control, and more that will greatly impact the rest of their lives. In addition to providing physical and emotional health and education to these children, they also want to bring these children hope.

“We are also looking to provide hope since we do a lot of work with orphanages and children with learning and physical disabilities. Not only is it important that they are cared for but also that they know there are people out there who care about them,” Wassmer explained.

At Have A Ball! Foundation, Montell and Wassmer, along with another PLNU alum Rosie Rodriguez (16), are currently the only three members of the organization. While they purchase the balls from the One World Play Project, they are fully responsible for raising all of the money and coordinating the shipping of the balls to locations in Mexico and Vietnam. But that’s not it. They also travel to these places to hand-deliver the balls and both play with and educate the children about the value and importance of play. They have traveled to Mexico and the northeast of Vietnam so far.

Their first trip was to Tepatitlán in the Mexican state of Jalisco in December of 2016. Montell and Rodriguez visited the Instituto Ana María Casillas, which is a school and orphanage run by Catholic nuns, to deliver the balls they had raised as well as other gifts and supplies, including bottles of hand sanitizer, toothbrushes, blankets, and more.

“The school and orphanage is really short-staffed, and they don’t have a lot of resources in terms of managing the children,” Montell explained. “They take care of infants all the way up to high school graduates. For our first trip we brought 50 balls that were decorated. We arrived and the kids were actually very hesitant because men are not allowed to visit the school. This is because kids can be snatched and forced to work for drug cartels or be sold into human trafficking.”

But eventually the kids began to open up. For them, being able to play and actually just “be a kid” had a tremendous effect on them.

“The kids really responded well and it was a nice break for them. The boys have a harder time because they have a lot of energy, and so it’s important that they have an outlet,” Montell explained.

In addition to bringing them joy in the form of play, they also work to understand exactly how they can educate the children in ways that can address many of their problems by collaborating with the leaders and teachers at the institute. Some of the children suffer from PTSD, and so being able to integrate play and healthier living is one small way they can provide emotional and mental support to children who otherwise have little of it.

In 2017, Wassmer and Montell delivered balls, along with several other materials, to remote villages in northeastern Vietnam. This trip, though completely worth it to them, was no doubt an arduous one.

Have A Ball! Foundation’s trip to Vietnam took them all over the country to deliver balls, food, and school supplies

These remote schools and social protection centers house not only children but also adults with learning and physical disabilities as well as the homeless. Montell shared how certain centers might have 90 to 150 kids, some with learning disabilities or other disabilities such as deafness, as well as several adults. He explained how at one center there were three women, each over a hundred years old, living in a barrack-style room with bunk beds.

“Some of these places look like military barracks,” Montell said. “And you’ll see little kids running around next to three women who are all over a hundred years old. It’s crazy; these three women are sleeping in bunk beds and they are over a hundred!”

On the trip they took in 2017 they visited three locations, with the last one situated deep in the jungles of the Bac Kan province of Vietnam. They were traveling with 70 balls, school and art supplies, rice, cooking oil, slippers, blankets, and more for over 100 people. Delivering all of these supplies was a massive challenge because of how remote these locations were. They had to transport the supplies across three lakes by using long, floating metal sheets and navigate the foliage-heavy terrain by riding on mopeds that were nearly tipping over with all of their stacked supplies.

“We were going through these paths in the jungle and the amount of foliage was crazy. We were way out there and not close to anything, and Mark and I were honestly afraid we were going to get malaria. As we’re navigating this jungle it gets dark and we keep getting lost with our translator and navigator,” Montell said. “We finally get to the village with the school, a place that just got clean water two years ago. It’s the middle of the night, but as soon as we get there they start butchering live chickens for dinner and showing us around the village. We are sitting cross-legged on this hard rock floor to eat and we’re exhausted but everyone else is so excited. It’s like some big party because we’re there.”

This particular village didn’t even have a school ten years ago, and though it’s better than nothing, the school is run down and in need of restoration. That’s why Have A Ball! Foundation not only provides the balls but also blankets and other supplies to protect the children against the natural elements — they don’t even have windows in many of these structures. Montell likened the structures they inhabit to the houses in the story about the three pigs, where one house is “made of straw and the other of sticks,” Montell said.

The morning after Wassmer and Montell arrived, they hear a little girl banging on a drum to indicate the start of the school day. Children emerge from the jungle, carrying lunch pails full of rice, and head toward the school. Wassmer and Montell begin by handing out the balls and art supplies so the kids can decorate them. Then they develop games — bowling, four square, soccer, or whatever else they can think of — for the kids to play. Additionally, Wassmer and Montell meet with the school’s leaders and with the aid of a translator to discuss how they can provide education that fosters sustainable living and physical health for the children.

“When we attend these schools or centers, we want to give them all of the tools that allow them to do rehabilitation and to help them establish a relationship with their body,” Montell shared. “Our foundation is geared toward providing sustainable means of play and encouraging communities to build healthier lives physically, mentally, and emotionally. We want to inspire lifelong learning, and play and physical recreation can help with that. We want to create good stewards of health and we are trying to set a good example for these kids.”

Related Article: Why we all need more play, recreation, and leisure in our lives no matter our age.

“We want exercise and physical activity to be a little shuttle for the children we meet to help them onto their next step in life,” Wassmer said. “We want them to be kids and enjoy life. Playing is one of the best ways to learn things. With play they learn to communicate with each other, interact with other people, and test out their bodies. The body is the greatest instrument they have. We want to help them stave off chronic diseases and live healthy lives, all while getting them to smile and be happy.”

Our foundation is geared toward providing sustainable means of play and encouraging communities to build healthier lives physically, mentally, and emotionally. We want to inspire lifelong learning, and play and physical recreation can help with that.

For their next project, they are collaborating with a Vietnamese woman named Lan who works with those diagnosed with epidermolysis bullosa (EB). This is an incurable genetic defect that affects one in 20,000 children. The condition causes the tearing of skin because of a lack of connective tissue, meaning that even by simply swallowing or sitting in a chair, one with EB can get an open wound. Since many in Vietnam don’t have the training or education on how to properly handle children with the disorder, the life expectancy is only three months to three years. Wassmer, Montell, and Rodriguez are currently working to raise money to provide 100 boxes of bandages to help Lan and her efforts to educate and support families who have a child with EB.

“Our long term goal is to provide monthly ‘X’ number of bandages that can go to alleviating some of the stress on these families,” Montell shared.

While Wassmer, Montell, and Rodriguez keep the Have A Ball! Foundation up and running, they are quick to acknowledge the many others who help make the work they’re doing possible. From their friends and families to the chair of PLNU’s Kinesiology Department, Jeff Sullivan, Ph.D., and the PLNU community to the translators and aids in Mexico and Vietnam to San Diego businesses and churches, they are grateful for all of the financial and emotional support in their efforts to bring smiles, health, and play to those children in need of them.

To learn more and support Have A Ball! Foundation visit their website or follow them on Instagram.

To discover how a Master’s in Kinesiology degree can accelerate your life, like Mark and Matt, visit: pointloma.edu/MSKIN