Nearly two years ago, we ran a story about Stephen Schirra, a globetrotting young man with a dream far greater than his own comprehension. Towards the end of his interview, Stephen began detailing the plans for an elaborate project that would ultimately use soccer to change the world for the better… well, at least that’s what he hoped for. Since then, it has been a busy last two years, but I think you’ll find that Stephen has made a lot of dreams come true, while positively impacting a lot of lives in the process.
With all that experience under his belt, he is more determined than ever to keep on going.
SoccerGrow: It’s been quite a while, Stephen, what have you been working on since the last time we spoke?
Stephen: Shortly after our first interview, I began researching potential organizations that fit the right build for exactly what it was that I wanted to accomplish in using soccer to give back. I still remember that first interview, talking about how I planned to team up with an outreach program specializing in giving out soccer balls and teaching the game to children from underserved communities. I might have been blinded by the twinkle in my starry-eyed gaze at the time, but it turns out that task ended up being far more difficult than I could have ever imagined. Knowing very well that the programs I found lacked practicality in their lofty costs and lengthy time commitments, I decided the only way to achieve what I wanted would be if I went at it on my own. Still, I needed the trust of one beneficiary to believe in my vision. After countless rejections, I received confirmation from a small orphanage for children from high-risk families in Lurin, Lima, Peru. From there, I guess I just ran with everything. A few months later, I founded my own 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, entitled Around the Worlds, Around the World – an ode to that first workshop in Peru, where the children spent days and nights begging me eagerly to teach them how to do the basic freestyle trick. Our mission has always been simple: to teach the game of soccer and distribute soccer equipment to underprivileged children all over the world. Through Around the Worlds, I’ve had the opportunity to share the game of soccer with over 3,200 children from more than 65 organizations spanning 12 different countries. Beneficiaries have included poor schoolchildren, orphans, victims of sexual-abuse/juvenile-imprisonment, victims of child prostitution, refugees, earthquake relief victims, and children with heavy gang and drug cartel ties. Since 2015, our work has touched the lives of children in the United States, Peru, the Philippines, Jamaica, Mexico, Ecuador, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Guatemala, Indonesia, and most recently, El Salvador in March of 2017.
SG: When did you realize that this was the type of work you wanted to be doing? When did “Around the Worlds, Around the World” evolve from a photo-blog into the internationally-recognized charity it is today?
Stephen: While I was growing up, I always wanted to do something that made the world a better place. As I got older, I seemed to struggle more and more to find a medium to do just that. I had explored different outlets, but nothing seemed to fit right. I searched and I waited, but that “spark” never came. After graduating from UConn, I had an opportunity to travel the world and in doing so, I witnessed the universal nature of soccer. I had seen its ability to forge so many positive interactions and experiences with absolute strangers, simply connecting over a shared passion for the game. I guess that’s when it all clicked. I knew at that moment that this sport could be used to do so much good in the world. The next moment that really solidified that this was what I wanted to do with my life was after my first workshop in Peru back in August of 2015. I went there with such ambitious dreams, with the next year of my life planned out…not even knowing if I was strong enough or capable of doing all of it (working with orphans, teaching, coaching, traveling, etc.). And that itself brought about an overwhelming sense of anxiety and anticipation, which I still kind of get before any clinic, even nowadays. I arrived in Peru with nothing but twenty soccer balls and a dream bigger than I could have ever imagined. I guess in retrospect, the absolute worst case scenario would have been that the experience was an utter disaster and I would’ve then gone home to scrap all the plans for Around the Worlds. But, the experience went better than I could have ever hoped for. I realized that I was in fact, capable, of doing it and I guess, quite good at it. At that point, I flew back home and started moving forward with the necessary steps in order to formalize Around the Worlds, Around the World as an official 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Just a year and a half later, here we are!
SG: Founding and running your own nonprofit organization, and traveling around the world to accomplish your goals, definitely presents a few challenges. Can you speak to that at all?
Stephen: As it goes with really anything in life, ambitions and dreams will always be met with a fair share of challenges. When I take a moment to look back at the past year or so, I can say with certainty that it has been one of the hardest chapters of my life. There have been so many setbacks along the way, so many days where I wanted to just give up. But it’s on those days that I dig deep down and remember the reason why I started doing this – to positively impact the lives of underprivileged children all over the world. And as far as challenges go, even though I’ve experienced some of the lowest lows of my life this past year…at the other end of the spectrum, I’ve had some of my happiest moments too -the latter easily outweighing the former. I guess one of the most difficult challenges since the start has been working with a shoestring budget. Having known what it was like to work with no funds from the beginning of Around the Worlds, I never wanted that mindset to change no matter how much we had in the bank account, which in a way has kept me grounded. I always look back to my first free-of- charge clinic at an orphanage in Peru and how I had purchased twenty soccer balls out of my own pocket to give to the kids. To me, that was money that I would forget about by the next day, but for those kids, the impact of that simple act of giving and receiving was priceless and would never be forgotten. So, despite all the recent success we’ve had, the allocation of our funds has never changed. As a result, I think it’s about 99.98 cents of every dollar that goes towards helping our beneficiaries – a statistic that we are extremely proud of. But to be completely honest, the biggest challenges lately have been more mental rather than anything physical or even operations-related. I’ll come home from a trip and my mom will ask me, “are you tired?” And my answer will always be, “no…my body’s not tired, but my mind is. I’m just emotionally drained.” That’s really exactly how it has been for the past few months. If anything, looking at it in regards to that emotion, trips just keep getting more and more difficult. People will read the stories from each orphanage, they’ll see the pictures, they’ll see the smiles, but that’s really just a fraction of it all. What they don’t know is that there are nights where I cry myself to sleep, my heart aching because of a story about one of the kids or something I had seen that day. And in a way, I’m thankful for those emotions because they serve as a reminder of how meaningful this work is to me. Like to be able to recall a memory and relive those same feelings just as vividly six months down the road than when it had first happened. To me, it serves as a sign that these emotions haven’t yet normalized. And I pray there never comes a time where they do, because if the work ever became robotic to me, I’d have to stop doing it. Because that just wouldn’t be fair to the kids. The one thing that I’ve struggled with most as of late has been empathy. It’s one of those things that can be a man’s greatest trait, but can also be his biggest downfall. You almost have to look at it [empathy] as a double-edged sword. Because, I tell you, it’s not easy to be empathetic in this line of work. It was something that really took an emotional toll on me while I was working in Guatemala. You’re out there working with kids that have been sexually abused, beaten, and abandoned…really just some of the most unfathomable circumstances that you can think of. And you see that pain in their eyes and all you want to do is take it all away, so that they never have to feel those things ever again. And then you see a boy in the back of the classroom, crying. Your mind races, automatically assuming the worst. And that has to have been the most terrifying thing, when kids are coming from such extreme circumstances that you never know if they’re crying just because they’re sad or because a parent was just murdered in the streets. And you see that boy crying for who knows what reason, and you see that pain in his eyes, and all you can do in that moment is feel that pain with him as you put your arm around his shoulder and cry. And to me, that’s empathy. When you don’t just tell a kid that you understand how they feel, but you can actually show them. You experience those emotions together, no matter how badly it hurts. I think that’s just so important and so much more meaningful to them than they could ever fully articulate or express. But it’s also dangerous because with empathy, you start taking on burdens that aren’t necessarily yours to bear. And that pain, those emotions, they add up. To me, this has been the biggest challenge lately, keeping all of these things in line.
SG: What are some of your long term goals concerning your nonprofit?
Stephen: When I started Around the Worlds, Around the World, I set a goal of hand-delivering 1000 soccer balls all over the world for the entirety of the nonprofit’s existence. I thought that number was far-fetched, maybe even a bit preposterous…but I can proudly say that back in November of 2016, we reached that milestone at a small school in Indonesia , which has recently called for setting some new goals. A year from now, I’m hoping to have taught soccer in 25 different countries or to 10,000 kids, really whichever comes first. Currently, we’re at 12 and 3,200, respectively. We’ve started transitioning from not just providing our beneficiaries with soccer balls, but also other equipment such as goals, cleats, kits, goalkeeper gloves, etc. so I hope to continue building on that in the future. At some point, I think that building a full-size soccer pitch at an orphanage would be something really special as well, so hopefully we can turn that dream into a reality someday. That’s pretty much it for long term goals…I seem to always struggle to answer questions about “what will Around the Worlds be like in five years, ten years time.” I guess I never really liked to think too far ahead with the world (and life, itself) presenting such an incredible amount of uncertainty. The truth is, I know exactly what I want to be doing in this very moment and to me, that’s sufficient enough.
SG: Do you feel as if the children you work with are truly passionate about playing soccer? What about soccer do you think makes it a tool for benefiting the lives of the children you meet?
Stephen: From what I’ve seen, the children we work with always seem to have this innate passion for the game of soccer. And to tell you the truth, I think that’s kind of a testament to the sport’s universality. I’ve seen soccer as a universal language, almost a way to communicate without actually speaking. Essentially, it’s something that can transcend all sorts of different boundaries in race, religion, gender, even socioeconomic status. The coolest thing has been seeing the smiles and genuine happiness on their faces when they have a soccer ball at their feet. I know that look because it’s the same one I had whenever I played soccer at that age, and it’s the same one I still get nowadays when I have the opportunity to play. There are so many different reasons why the game of soccer is beneficial for the kids we work with. At its core, soccer represents a concentrated form of “play”, which is (and has always been) fundamental in the growth and development of children. I’ve always felt that soccer, and really just sports in general, can teach so many different lessons to those that participate. For instance, we could be running a simple drill during a workshop that has the kids smiling and having an incredible amount of fun, but at the same time, they’re simultaneously building upon their knowledge of the basic pillars of the game. They’re not just working on their passing or their dribbling or their touch and control, they’re also learning to communicate effectively, even learning about spatial awareness. And having fun while doing it! But for these kids, soccer represents so much more than just an hour or two of “play”. For some, it might serve as a temporary escape from the lingering problems of their past. For others, soccer might mean opportunity. An opportunity to break away from poverty, using the sport as an outlet. To them, with that opportunity comes hope. I’ve worked with so many kids who have the talent that it takes [to play at the professional level]. And if they don’t have the talent, they have an undying work ethic, almost to a fault. A “play barefoot until the bottoms of your feet bleed” kind of attitude. But ultimately, there are so many factors working against them. One of the key ones I’ve noticed is a lack of exposure, but that might have to be a conversation for another day. Having only been doing this for a little over a year now, it’s too early to have any updates on if any of the kids we’ve worked with in the past have actually gone professional – they’re still far too young to know that. But after spending a weekend at an orphanage in the Dominican, I was pleased to find out that a young boy who I had spent a significant amount of time exclusively working with, had obtained a scholarship at his new school. Despite all the different awards and accolades that have come since the start of Around the Worlds, finding out this particular news has proven to be our biggest triumph to this day.