Maybe you’ve heard his name before.
Meet JoBen Barkey. Graduating from Trinity in 2001, he went on to successfully start the franchise Soccer Shots in Orange County, California, teaching kids between the ages of two and eight the fundamentals of soccer. The reason you may have already heard his name is because Barkey received the TWU Alumni Association Distinction award for servant leadership this past fall. He won on the basis of using his business to better the lives of those it reaches: kids. And, not just teaching kids how to play soccer but doing so through character development and mentorship.
Award aside, JoBen is an honest, down-to-earth father of four, and an all around legitimate guy. He’ll tell you he spent a lot of his time on the Spartan men’s soccer team warming the bench, but it’s his testimony of how soccer shaped his time after Trinity that really gets people going.
We had the privilege of sitting down with JoBen, to ask the bigger questions about Soccer Shots and the momentum it’s gaining around the globe.
Mars’ Hill (MH): There are some people within the Trinity community who are familiar with who you are, but for those who don’t know, tell us about yourself and your time at Trinity.
JoBen Barkey (JB): My time at Trinity actually started in South America in Peru in the Amazon rainforest. I had heard about Trinity and some cousins went there, and a girl had just graduated from our high school in Peru and gone there. So I applied to one place! That was Trinity.
I made the soccer team and red-shirted the first year then finally got some playing time by my second year and really enjoyed being a part of Spartan athletics. Loved the teammates and the experience.
MH: For someone who doesn’t know about Soccer Shots, explain to us what it is that you do and how that translates into bigger outreach work?
JB: I found out through one of my best friends about this franchise. Him and his friends were trying to franchise out this program that teaches character development lessons and soccer education at a really basic level to two to eight-year-olds. Their focus was on the education side and really modelling the current education system and making sure the children were taught in developmentally appropriate ways, which no one else was doing in that field.
Across Southern California where we work, we have about 1500 children a week that we train. Here in California my company employs about 25 people.
Rewind a bit though. I read an article in the Tampa Bay Times in either 2012 or 2013 and it was picked up nationwide by CNN even though it first broke in Tampa. It outlined 50 non-profits in the US that give less than four per cent of the money they raise to the project that they are raising money for, with all kinds of horror stories about “20 million dollars raised, 19 million going to the son-in-law’s marketing company”. I wanted to build something where I wasn’t relying on the whims of somebody else’s continued passion about a project. I didn’t want the rug pulled out from under me.
The first thing I did was go back to Peru and work with a guy that I had known. One of the hardest things is finding a local person that you can invest in that is going to be there long term and is as committed as you are. I knew he was really committed to mentorship and education and community impact through soccer.
He had a small academy where he was training 40 children with three flat soccer balls. We donated about 200 soccer balls and trained them how to work with the younger age group. That was just a proof of concept to make sure we could do it.
MH: What happened next?
JB: We went and worked with a dormmate of mine, who started Wellspring Academy in Rwanda. Because they are so well connected to the public school community, we actually held a full day training session where about 34 teachers from the public schools came and we talked to them about what we do.
We sponsored a project in Ethiopia next, then we sponsored an orphanage in Kenya to get a team and get the league fees done. Then we went to Cameroon through another Trinity connection.
The guy who sold me his van actually. He randomly co-Facebook messaged me with this guy Jordan and said “you two guys are like the same dude”. Sure enough, right off the bat we were best buds. Such a similar background, lived our whole lives growing up as children in developing countries, him in West and Central Africa.
I started saying, “hey, I could come and do this”. Up until that point we had always done one-off donation projects, so that was our intention. We took about 400 soccer balls and myself and Dan Gamble, who also played on the Spartans men’s soccer team at Trinity.
Dan and I ran two different programs. One in Yaoundé, the capital and one in Kumba, the English speaking part of Cameroon.
It was five days of really intense teaching, to the point of calling us robo-cops and robo-machines. We were working all day and we were “go-go-go” but we had so much to teach them. We were getting them all on board of this mentality of mentoring the community and being a pillar of development amongst the children. There’s a lot of issues with poverty, a lot of health issues, there’s a lot of temptations to get involved with gangs or petty crimes. We were trying to build into these coaches this understanding of their opportunity and ask the question “Why are you doing this?” It’s not to get rich or grow the next best soccer player, because if that’s your whole goal, that means that one kid over the hundreds and hundreds in your career made it and everyone else was a waste of your time.
At the end of it all, it was amazing. There are things that are “just the way it is” in Cameroon. For example, men don’t cry and men don’t apologize. Through the course of our time there, we saw people open up. We saw this one guy come in, talking about the impact with tears in his face said, “On Monday morning we are changing our academy, and we will be focusing on a new character development component every week. Our first one is going to be respect. But I am not a hypocrite” he said, “This week I got into an argument with two of the younger coaches here in front of the children and I spoke disrespectfully. So first, before I start training my academy, I want to apologize and ask for your forgiveness.” He did this in front of everybody!
Very quickly after that, we went to Kumba and worked with another organization there. The first organization we work with is Petrichor and the second one is Cameroon FDP. The second one is about coming alongside them and helping them with the structure of their organization and more consulting. With Petrichor, we started from the ground up.
The guys in Canada who had started the Soccer Shots franchise came alongside us and Petrichor with a brand new campaign. They said they financially wanted to be a part of it!
We made a commitment financially to donate a portion of every dollar that comes in, both the Canadian and Orange County Soccer Shots franchises, to the organization in Cameroon. We turned around and called up Petrichor in Cameroon and said because there’s a strong local component and leadership in place that we believe in, we were actually going to use them (14 academy directors) for these funds.
Come this year, we started sponsoring 14 academies with a stipend for each academy director as well as a monthly allowance for purchasing soccer equipment. The stipulation is that they have to be aligned with what we are doing, they must position themselves as mentors. That character component comes in for the director, and they also have to do meetings with mentors and turn in reports on what they are focusing on.
The last stipulation is that they have to start growing and running a girls team. They shut down the girls league this past year for economic reasons. They just couldn’t afford it. By giving them allowances and stipends for being under our umbrella, we are actually incentivizing them to go and restart the girls league themselves.
There’s some amazing stuff that is just starting to happen that’s beyond the scope of what we’re capable of doing, but the end game is that we know how to set up a business, know what it should look like. In 18 months we are going to try to present to FIFA in Cameroon and try to get them on board. We know if we can get them on board, they can see the social and economic benefits of having these kids involved with us as compared to the other options in the community. As well, for them to see the strong education platform that we have for soccer development with this young group, it would turn into a no-brainer for them to invest with us.
On top of that, just last week we partnered with the LA Galaxy to be the official two to five-year-old soccer provider for Orange County. Ultimately, they are the base of the pyramid that ends up at the MLS club level…and now we get to be that base! We are pretty stoked and to make it even better, they’re pumped about what we’re doing in Cameroon.
MH: Go back to when you were in Peru and Rwanda. People talk a lot about short-term missions or visits and the dangers that can have on a community. Can you explain that more from your perspective?
JB: There’s a tentmaker component to it. For us, we have worked in areas that are not friendly to our faith. We have been very careful about how we have wrapped what we are bringing. Essentially, our whole vision when we broke it down was that we want to love kids indiscriminately. That means packaging ourselves so people can’t discriminate in a way that stops kids from being loved. We come in with character development, of community responsibility, respect, teamwork and little things like saying “thank you”. We’ve developed great relationships with Islamic communities, Jewish schools, Catholic schools, Evangelical schools, public schools and cities and parks because we’re doing something. It’s not just random, it connects people.
When we come with a tentmaker mentality, there are three ways that we give. Through our time and our talent and our treasure. If you can find a way to do all three, it doesn’t cost as much money. That’s what’s been really exciting, we’ve built this opportunity where we are coming in with the skillset and I think there is a time and place for all types of community impact.
One of the biggest scares for me is when you come in with a big bag of t-shirts and you hand them out to the kids, it makes great photo-ops. There’s a third-generational family living in one house that’s had a t-shirt store for the past 30 years and you just put them out of business. They’ll never recover. How do you balance the capacity to bring help with the damage that help can cause sometimes.
We are coming with a skill that is transferable, so when we leave, we give the gear, but what stays after all that stuff is gone is that the coach now knows how to better impact his community. That never leaves, they have it forever, it’s knowledge. That’s what we’ve really built, to enable people who have already built into being mentors.
MH: My last question is, what would you want people to know about the places that you go to, or Cameroon in specific? What don’t we realize?
JB: Cameroon experiences many of the same struggles that other developing countries face. In underdeveloped economies petty crime and substance abuse amongst youth are often the result of hopelessness and boredom. This hopelessness that comes from believing that there is no way to better themselves often leads to poor choices at a young age that are compounded by boredom, discontentment and lack of strong positive mentorship.
When youth do not believe that anyone is for them, and that there is no clear path towards changing their situation, it is easy to begin making unhealthy choices. This is why the work of Petrichor is so important. Children in these circumstances typically see soccer as the most likely pathway out of the economic struggles of their community.
Fortunately the pathway that soccer creates goes two directions and it allows us access into the communities through a shared passion for the sport. We are really grateful to have a relationship with an organization like Petrichor, which has a dedicated team living in country, working every day to better the lives and futures of thousands of children in Cameroon.