Mike Mitchell is hosting the Sixth Annual Benefit at Behan’s this Saturday to help people in Niger, West Africa.
In January 2011, Al-Qaida executed two French volunteers in Northern Africa. Hostility was at an all-time high in the capital city of Niger as it was infiltrated by the radical group.
Mike Mitchell, 56, was warned by family members to avert the growing aggression.
“They told me not to go, but I told them if I didn’t go, Al-Qaida wins,” said Mitchell.
Brushing aside his family’s cries, he traveled to the troubled country with a helping hand and a soccer ball.
Entering the city, he could sense the glaring eyes piercing him.
“I wanted to prove this theory I had, so I went back to my car and grabbed a soccer ball,” said Mitchell.
He passed the ball to the men and he said the tension evaporated with one kick. According to Mitchell, he was able to find a common ground with these strangers, because soccer helps alleviate violence.
Mitchell attended California State University, Chico where he received his bachelor’s degree in physical education and played for Chico State’s men’s soccer team. He was selected for the United States University All-Star soccer team and traveled throughout Africa. After graduating, he joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer in Niger, West Africa.
“I was there from 1983 to 1985 and they asked me to play for their local team,” said Mitchell.
He played for Equipe Espoir, Team Hope, that had never won a championship. The team didn’t even have a soccer ball with which to practice. At the first practice, Mitchell brought 15 soccer balls.
“It literally went from a sad scenario to an uplifting scene,” said Mitchell.
In 1984, they won Niger National Championship for the first time.
The celebration was overshadowed by Niger’s worst drought ever.
“A baby died in my arms due to the starvation,” said Mitchell.
People were dying all around him, he said, and the experience left an impression on him.
“I was hit hard physically, psychologically and mentally,” said Mitchell.
He felt no one could relate to him when he returned to the states, so he turned to alcohol to numb the pain.
“I can’t forget what I saw in Africa,” said Mitchell.
When he returned to school for his master’s degree, he wrote a thesis on his experiences in Niger. His professor didn’t believe a sport could change the course of human aggression.
“My professor said my paper was a hypothesis, not a thesis,” said Mitchell.
He shook his professor’s hand and told him he would do his best to prove his thesis. This is how his journey began.
Mitchell suffered from alcoholism after his return from Niger in 1985. Mitchell gave up drinking with the help of his family and yoga. That was in 1999 and he has been sober since.
“You can’t help others without helping yourself first,” said Mitchell.
The beginning wasn’t easy. From 1991-2005, Mitchell was only able to raise $500. He resorted to using his company’s client’s list.
“I work for an adventure retreat in Brazil and a lot of my clients are wealthy,” said Mitchell.
A few of his clients obliged and donated to his cause. This helped to establish Project Play, an organization dedicated to enriching the lives of children in Africa through soccer.
The organization has donated more than 2,000 soccer balls to communities throughout Niger. Children have access to organized sport and recreation, which has made a difference in the community, he said.
“We are focused on raising global awareness for our cause and the impact a soccer ball can make in the lives of children,” said Mitchell.
Nigerian children are being motivated to attend and perform in school due to the success of the newly formed soccer leagues, he said.
Now, Mitchell works with Pencil for Kids, an organization providing classroom supplies, programs, libraries and schools to communities in need. With its help, he is hosting the Sixth Annual Benefit at Behan’s Irish Pub 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. July 28.
The event will feature live music, all kinds of food and door prizes. The grand prize will be a 2014 Brazilian World Cup adventure. Winners will lodge for a week at the Paraty Beach, in Brazil, where he currently lives. The prize also includes hiking and kayaking excursions.
“This year we are doing Ph.D. work on measurements and research over what happened in the last six years, so we can apply for big grants,” said Mitchell.
The next big project is to install a solar energy unit to bring water from the river.
“The river is an hour away, so a bucket of water in the scorching Niger heat is not worth it,” said Mitchell.
To get the solar unit approved, Mitchell needs the grants to proceed with his research. That is why Pencil for Kids along with Mitchell are hosting the Annual Benefit for Kids. If successful, the event will pay for the research.
“I don’t want to go over there and spend $7,000 on travel alone when we could pay for someone who is over there already,” said Mitchell.
With the money he has raised in the past, the organization has inserted the Farmer’s of the Future program, built three schools and organized a soccer league for the children.
“We are teaching children modern agricultural technologies, because they will learn how to grow sufficient foods,” said Mitchell. “Looking at the big picture, I’m just connecting people who are interested in helping out.”
For more information visit https://www.facebook.com/events/161735327325871/.