Today’s blog is written by former PeacePlayers International Program Director, Zach Leverenz. Currently serving as the CEO of EveryoneOn, Zach has tremendous experience driving social change, both in the field and in the board room.
When I first met PeacePlayers International Co-Founder, Sean Tuohey, in 2003 he told me to imagine I was parachuting out of a plane over Siberia with only a deflated soccer ball, and then asked me how I would survive. He then asked me how I would start a PeacePlayers International program. I’m not sure exactly what I told him – broke down a fast-paced and inclusive session plan that was built around one ball passing drills. I probably ignored the “survival” question – or told him I’d melt snow for water, and that food was unnecessary until I had got the PPI program funded.
His questions were weird enough to get me hooked. I have always had a passion for basketball and mentoring youth, and I was excited for an opportunity to combine my two core interests. I spent the next 5 years of my life helping to build what was then a very young non-profit. I spent 1.5 years in Northern Ireland, 2 years in South Africa, before traveling to Cyprus to launch the program there. After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, I landed in New Orleans to help create a PeacePlayers program for kids trying to overcome the challenges growing up in communities devastated by the storm.
Some of my most memorable PPI experiences occurred in South Africa, where I spent much of my time establishing PeacePlayers in the very rural areas of KwaZulu Natal, like Molweni and Umbubulu. The Molweni community was so excited and proud to have PPI arrive, and they poured themselves into it with everything they had. We built 4-5 courts over two years, and they were packed with shorties at all times. When those shorties won the PeacePlayers Championship, there was such a powerful sense of accomplishment and pride. They had proved that even without resources, they could become champs through teamwork, focus, and commitment. It was something I think carried over into their day-to-day lives too. Four of those original Molweni coaches went on to become senior managers at PPI-SA, overseeing large portions of the entire program.
Throughout my time with PPI, I saw over and over what a powerful tool sport can be across very different cultures. In each PPI setting, basketball had an uncommon ability to transcend conflict, language, and religion. After PPI I completed a graduate school project at Harvard on the phenomena of sport and culture, and it wasn’t surprising that most sociologists agree that there are no other human institutions, with the exception of religion, that have such wide social, political, economic and cultural influence as sport.
The opportunity to help design and implement the PeacePlayers program across a range of distinctive cultures and conflicts afforded me a truly exceptional, cross-disciplinary experience and education. Those experiences continue to inform my world views and professional choices in ways that I could never have imagined. In 2012, I started EveryoneOn, a national social enterprise that seeks to eliminate the digital divide for low-income and minority Americans. Today outcomes for employment, education, and health are directly tied to technology access and skills, so the fact that nearly 1/3 of our citizens are unconnected is unacceptable. Since our launch, EveryoneOn and our platform of partners have connected over 500,000 people to low cost, high speed Internet, so we are seeing a great response to date.
I remain extremely grateful and humbled by the opportunity to work for organizations like EveryoneOn and PeacePlayers, and am excited by the kind of future that they are building for youth across the world.