Skyline students play it forward

November 3, 2009

By Joshua Mayers

Emily Baer saw a newspaper ad in search of unused soccer balls.

Perfect, the eighth-grader thought. Answering that call would more than satisfy a community service requirement.

She collected 36 balls from her neighborhood and figured she was done. Turns out she sold herself short. Way short.

“A couple months later, I was at it again,” Baer said.More than three years later, the senior midfielder on the defending state-champion Skyline High School girls soccer team is still at it. With the help of friend and fellow Skyline senior Katie Ulrich, 607 soccer balls and 1,298 unused uniforms have been collected and donated to African children in need.

“If I could go back in time and tell myself how much I’d help collect, I don’t think I would believe it,” Baer said.

Baer and Ulrich started collecting soccer balls with their Issaquah Soccer Club Arsenal ’91 teammates at club tournaments at Lake Sammamish State Park.

A service project was born. They named it Play it Forward.

Along the way, Baer and Ulrich received help from Soccer Nation, a retail store in Issaquah that allowed the girls to purchase new soccer balls at wholesale prices with the money they had collected through cash donations.

Months later, the girls’ efforts expanded to include old uniforms. World Vision, a humanitarian organization based in Federal Way, offered to distribute their collections to needy communities across the world.

“We’ve received a lot of help over the years,” Baer said.

Last fall, Baer and Ulrich hit the jackpot when they discovered a far greater source of old and unused uniforms: their high school.

“Our teams get new uniforms every couple years, and it was crazy to see how many old uniforms we had, when we know there are kids out there that don’t have anything,” said Ulrich, who played junior-varsity soccer at Skyline for three years. “We just said ‘Let’s put this old stuff to good use, instead of letting it sit in a storage room for a couple more years.’”

With the help of athletic director Kevin Rohrich, the uniforms were theirs. Then came the hard part: washing, counting and sorting all the gear.

“At one point I had 20 duffel bags stuffed with stuff,” Ulrich said.

Said Baer: “It’s definitely a time commitment.”

Baer’s stick-to-itiveness came as little surprise to Spartans girls soccer coach Don Braman.

“She has a great internal sense of how things should be and how to make things better,” he said. “As a player, I remember Emily asking me last year, ‘What can I do to be better? To be one step ahead of where I am now?’ and now she’s arriving there this season.

“An essential message of our program is doing something for more than just ourselves, and Emily has been the embodiment of that, even before she joined our team.”

The soccer field is also where Baer found help distributing the mass of old Skyline equipment. Baer’s brother played on the same soccer team as the son of Suzanne McGill, who is helping establish a boarding school for young women in Rwanda called the Rwanda Girls Initiative.

McGill, who travels to the central African nation three times a year, agreed to transport the collected soccer balls and uniforms to give to school children.

“Those girls [Baer and Ulrich] aren’t interested in getting attention for what they’re doing, they’re just wanting to do things for kids that don’t have as much,” McGill said. “They put a lot of hard work into what they do.”

Baer and Ulrich’s reward? The pictures of kids grinning ear-to-ear with their new gifts. The children living in countries rife with political unrest, genocide, AIDS and malnutrition are given something to smile about.

Baer and Ulrich consider it an even trade.

“I remember seeing a picture a couple years ago from World Vision of a boy in Chad holding this pink soccer ball that I remember holding, deflating and sending off,” Baer said. “When you see the pictures and hear the stories, it makes it worth it.”

Ulrich agreed.

“Seeing the pictures come back, especially of the kids wearing the jerseys and knowing I touched it a couple months earlier, is the final link of a long process,” she said.

In their last year of high school, Baer and Ulrich hope to reach out to other schools in the Issaquah School District to gather more unused uniforms. The girls also hope Play it Forward can live on at Skyline after they graduate.

“We’d love to see some students step up and continue the collection and carry this on,” Ulrich said.

Until then, Play it Forward is in good hands.

How to give

If you have extra or unused soccer balls or uniforms,

contact Emily Baer at emilybaer@comcast.net and Katie Ulrich at kateulrich6@comcast.net.

Joshua Mayers: jmayers@seattletimes.com

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