It all started with a conversation between Michael Vernau and his soccer coach, Jammal Anibaba, last year about how kids at Anibaba’s former school in Nigeria played soccer without any of the accoutrements that Davis kids are used to: with a ball fashioned from bunched-up plastic bags tied with a string, barefoot on the pitch and with no uniforms to speak of.
Hearing that, Vernau, a ninth-grader at Holmes Junior High School and Davis High junior varsity soccer player, decided to take action.
He knew his closets and drawers at home were full of unneeded jerseys, shorts, socks, outgrown cleats and too-small soccer balls. And when he asked around, he found most of his friends were in the same boat. A childhood playing soccer in Davis, it seems, makes for a lot of outgrown gear piling up in closets.
Turns out Vernau wasn’t the only one thinking all that gear could be put to better use.
Brian Birt, a senior member of the Blue Devil varsity team, had already begun collecting unwanted soccer equipment from family and friends when he and Vernau decided to join forces. Last summer, the pair formed Second Touch Soccer, with the goal of collecting, cleaning and distributing all that soccer gear to less fortunate kids.
Vernau and Birt put out the word in the community and donations started pouring in. They sent off the first two shipments last summer: one, delivered personally by Anibaba, went to Nigeria; another to Uganda, supplying kids in both countries will full sets of soccer uniforms and equipment.
Anibaba, said Vernau, was thrilled to see the students at his old school outfitted much like the American kids he now coaches.
Since then, what started as two Davis teens wanting to make a small difference in the world has grown into something a bit more significant: Second Touch Soccer, or 2TS for short, is nearing official 501(c)(3) non-profit status, with Vernau serving as president and Birt as vice president.
And the nonprofit’s advisory board reads like a Who’s Who of Davis soccer luminaries who’ve thrown their weight behind the effort: Anibaba’s son, Jalil, who currently plays for the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer; Jalil’s brother, Jammil Anibaba; Adam Jahn, a member of the San Jose Earthquakes currently on loan to Sacramento Republic FC; and Erica Jahn, Adam’s sister and an executive with Sac Republic FC. The Jahns both grew up playing soccer in Davis, with Adam going on to play for Jesuit High School and Erica for St. Francis, while Jalil Anibaba played for DHS.
Those homegrown connections have helped.
Because while the community has been extremely generous in donating soccer gear to 2TS, some extra connections never hurt.
Erica Jahn learned recently that Vernau and Birt were in particular need of children’s goalkeeper gear, and reached out to Sac Republic goalkeeper Dominic Jakubek for help. Jakubek turned to Tim Franks, a coach at Cap FC United — a Sacramento-based youth soccer club — who Jakubek had played and coached with. Any chance he could help? Franks was asked.
The answer arrived Tuesday, when Franks met Vernau and Birt at the Sac Republic offices in Sacramento with two boxes loaded with youth goalkeeper gear donated by his club’s families.
“What you guys are doing is good,” Franks told the boys, adding, “I’ll keep bringing stuff.”
The additional gear was needed because every goalkeeper needs a variety of colors available to them, Birt noted, so they don’t match any of the other players on the pitch.
“We’ll be able to use all of this,” he added.
After loading the gear into the car, Birt and Vernau returned to Davis and added it all to the growing inventory in a spare bedroom in Vernau’s house.
Truth be told that room is no longer spare — virtually every bit of it, from closet space to drawers to the bed and floor are piled high with soccer stuff: jerseys, shorts, socks, cleats, shirts, shin guards, balls … whatever a team might need to play a game, it’s here. Even uniforms and equipment for referees.
Because the nonprofit gets very specific requests for outfitting entire teams of a dozen or more players — all in a specific size and color — they need a lot of stock on hand to assemble matching sets, Vernau noted.
“We need a lot of donations to fulfill the larger requests,” he explained, “but the support has been really good. And the bigger this gets, the easier it is.”
The UC Davis women’s soccer team recently came through with a huge donation of jerseys, shoes and more, Vernau said, and people are constantly donating items in a box Second Touch Soccer has at the downtown clothing store Boheme.
They could use some additional storage space for it all though. Someone in Wisconsin learned about their efforts online and sent 50 soccer balls recently.
“My shower is now literally full of soccer balls,” Vernau said with a laugh.
Renting a storage unit may be in the nonprofit’s future, the boys said.
In the meantime they are fielding requests coming in from all over. In addition to Nigeria and Uganda, they’ve shipped boxes of gear to Haiti and Belize and are preparing shipments to Ethiopia and Ghana. Jammal Anibaba serves as the outreach director for Africa, ensuring the equipment all gets into the hands of the kids who need it.
Because shipping is expensive, Birt and Vernau have put in time fundraising as well, running a snack bar at Nugget soccer fields to raise additional money. Now, with their nonprofit status and a PayPal account on their website, the pair can take direct donations as well.
“People who maybe don’t have kids who play soccer can donate that way and it makes a huge difference because shipping is so expensive,” Birt noted.
Locally, 2TS also has outfitted youth from Davis, Woodland, Dixon and Knights Landing. Many of the local requests come from individual kids who need a pair of cleats, for example. But Vernau and Birt also outfitted an entire U12 team in Knights Landing recently.
With the most recent donation facilitated by Sac Republic, they’ll be better able to outfit goalkeepers too.
Birt and Vernau are grateful for both the help and the advice and guidance they’re receiving from their advisory board.
“We have some seasoned veterans in our corner,” Birt noted.
And those veterans are happy to help out.
“It’s really impressive what these boys have been able to do,” Erica Jahn said. “It’s a really nice way to get (gear) to kids who can’t afford it. It’s exciting for us to be a part of it.”
Birt and Vernau hope to continue for a long time. Even though Birt is headed off to Tulane University in the fall, he’ll still play an active role in 2TS, just participating a little more via Skype and little less in person, he said.
But with their nonprofit status, experienced advisory board and a generous community behind them, Birt and Vernau seem to have built something that will last.
To learn more about 2TS or to donate, visit www.secondtouchsoccer.com.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy.