Earlier this year, EPIC received an email from Jacquelyn Thomas of Lakewood, Colorado. Jacquelyn is the mother of an extraordinary girl named Vanicia (who’s now 11 years old). Her mom wrote: “My daughter [is] raising funds for kids in Iraq. We would like to donate the money raised to Soccer Salam.”
Vanicia became motivated to help kids in Iraq by the stories of her father, William Thomas. A U.S. Army veteran, William shared fond memories with her daughter about the children that he met during his service in Iraq. Like all children, Vanicia had a lot of questions, and soon, she became determined to do something to help children like those her father remembers.
As a student leader, Vanicia began organizing a fundraiser at her school, Kendrick Lake Elementary School, to send soccer balls to children in Iraq. She and her dad called it: A Kick of Hope. A fifth grader at the time, Vanicia encouraged her classmates and the school’s faculty to participate.
Then she searched for an organization that could help deliver the soccer balls. That’s how Vanicia first learned about EPIC and Soccer Salam. Created in 2014, Soccer Salam was EPIC’s joint initiative with the Iraq Health Access Organization (IHAO), the Iraqi Children Foundation, the Karadah Project, and the Goals and Dreams Foundation to deliver lifesaving humanitarian assistance and the joy of play to thousands of internally displaced families who were under siege by ISIS or fleeing the violence.
From late 2014 to 2017, the Soccer Salam team successfully distributed winter blankets, first aid kits, emergency food and water, and whenever possible, soccer balls, to more than 60,000 Iraqis in need, often reaching families and children in hard to reach areas.
In a country where nearly half the population is under the age of 21, soccer is a number one past time that unites all Iraqis.
“My father was in Iraq for three years and when he saw me playing soccer one day, he remembered the kids in Iraq who would use anything they could find as a soccer ball and that gave me the idea to send soccer balls to them,” Vanicia said, whose father was deployed to Iraq three times during his 10 years of service.
In organizing the fundraiser, Vanicia wrote and read a letter to a meeting of her school’s PTA (Parent Teacher Association) sharing her inspiration for the fundraiser to garner their support. She also met with her principal and coordinated with her student leadership club to create posters, place collection jars in classrooms, and spread the word across campus.
The day the fundraiser was announced, one of Vanicia’s friends went home after school and counted all the money in his piggy bank. The next day he brought in all $83 of his personal savings, Vanicia’s mom recalls. In two short weeks, Vanicia’s community raised $421 for Soccer Salam. Like the best friend who counted out the coins from his piggy bank, Vanicia and her classmates learned about the value of generosity, especially when put to the service of a noble goal.
Jaqueline recalls, “What surprised me was how supportive everyone was. There had been fundraisers in the past, but this one seemed to just catch fire quicker than the others.”
Moved by Vanicia’s spirited determination to make a difference and the community of support that she mobilized for children in Iraq, we have officially re-launched Soccer Salam. Last month while the EPIC team was in Iraq on a field mission, we went to the market and bought $500 of soccer balls and jump ropes to deliver to children in need. Then on the week before Thanksgiving, the EPIC team traveled to Sharya, a subdistrict of Dohuk in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Sharya is currently home to a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs). More than 4,000 families live in tents in the camp while another 1,000 families are hosted by the seven villages surrounding the camp. Nearly all of the families are members of Iraq’s Yazidi community who were forced to flee Sinjar in 2014 when ISIS seized their lands and began carrying out mass atrocities against the Yazidi people. Although Sinjar was retaken from ISIS, the damage and fears remain. Held by competing militias, including the PKK, the families who remain in Sharya are unable to return home due to the lack of security, services, and livelihoods in their places of origin.
Focusing on one of the villages hosting out-of-camp IDPs, we distributed the Kick of Hope soccer balls and jump ropes to 150 displaced and vulnerable children in need, including Yazidi children. For these kids, the gift of one soccer ball can make a big difference.
Vanicia witnessed this difference firsthand while helping her grandfather at home. “My grandpa runs a gift give-away during the holidays and when I hand out Barbie Dolls, I see the kids smile at me and it brings joy to my heart. I wanted to bring that joy to the kids in Iraq and inspire them,” Vanicia said.
Moving into the holidays, Vanicia and her mom hope to organize another Kick of Hope, and we’re excited to continue to work to build bridges of community and support between families, from Lakewood, Colorado to Sharya, Dohuk!
To help us reach more children in need, we invite you to join Vanicia and her classmates’ Kick of Hope campaign today with a year-end charitable donation to EPIC‘s Soccer Salam initiative. Right now, your support will go a long way in furthering Soccer Salam in 2020.