BURLINGAME — Two weeks before Michael Mitchell joined the Peace Corps, his best friend told him to forget about packing clothes.
"Just bring soccer balls," he was told. Mitchell took the advice and left for Niger with 15 balls in 1983. "And why not? You have a soccer ball underneath your arm, and they come around you like a magnet of good energy, not terror, fear or violence."
Mitchell, who is now 51 and lives outside Sao Paulo, Brazil, understands that soccer is the universal language.
The former Burlingame resident found a common ground among the people who live in the impoverished villages of the Republic of Niger in Western Africa.
In February of this year, Mitchell and his team went back to deliver 2,016 soccer balls in about 20 villages while implementing Project Play Niger.
In an unexpected stop at one of the settlements, they saw a group of kids kicking around an old black sock full of sand.
"The kids were in disbelief that (we) showed up out of nowhere and gave them a ball," said Dave Stahl of Project Play.
Stahl said Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world.
It lacks commerce and has no water access nor natural resources and technology.
"It gave them hope," said 53-year-old Stahl, who also operates the Off the Wall indoor soccer arena in Chico.
Mitchell said the seed of the idea to provide more soccer balls to the area was planted after meeting then-Nigerian President Seyni Koutché.
It was after Mitchell's team, L'Equipe Espoir — Team Hope in French — won the 1984 Niger National Championship.
"He shook my hand and said, 'This is how we should get along. The soccer ball brought us together today.'"
A year later, Mitchell went back to the U.S., and was already looking for ways to collect as many balls as he could.
In 1989, he started looking for sponsors and donations, while beginning his physical education master's thesis at Chico State University.
His hypothesis was that a ball is a powerful tool against poverty and violence — already proven by his two-year stint in Niger.
"People living in poverty, they don't have a reason to live," Mitchell said. "The (soccer ball) is going to stimulate you, and give you incentives to live. If you go to class, you'll get to play soccer. If you work, you'll get to play soccer."
However, Mitchell's journey to bring soccer balls to Niger was bittersweet.
It took the group years to raise $35,000, much of it collected from Project Play benefits around San Mateo County. His family owns Behan's Irish Pub in Burlingame, and Fiddler's Green Irish Restaurant in Millbrae.
Getting the soccer balls to Niger was costly because trucks don't go to the area, Stahl said.
The red-and-white balls were stored in a Peace Corps warehouse in Niamey, the country's capital city.
The Niger government and Peace Corps Niger agreed to support the project.
Mitchell filmed the February trip and expects to release it on YouTube on Dec. 20.
Next year, Project Play is planning to bring 2,000 to 3,000 soccer balls to Togo, which borders Ghana.
Stahl said he was happy to help.
"Those kids are lucky to have one set of clothes, and most of them don't have shoes," he said. "The people there are struggling, but the soccer balls really brought joy to the people."
For more information on Project Play Niger, visit www.projectplay.me.
Staff writer Christine Morente covers faith, families, Burlingame and North County. She can be reached at 650- 348-4333 or firstname.lastname@example.org.