Years of civil war throughout the continent of Africa have displaced millions from their homes and lives. We've seen how this type of systemic violence has fractured families and thrust young children prematurely into adult roles; from caring and working for their families to taking up arms and fighting as soldiers. One of the things these children skip over in their truncated youth is something that teaches them trust, cooperation, problem-solving and in a very basic way, friendship. It's play; the games that lead to the laughter and dizzying memories that enrich our childhoods and it's something that ultimately, makes us who we are.
For Olympic Gold medalist and World Champion speed-skater, Johann Olav Koss, it's this kids' stuff, tag, hide & seek, soccer, blind man's bluff, that forms an essential part of growing up and becoming the kind of loving, trusting adults that make for good neighbors and peaceful citizens of the world. That's why this former Olympic star has foregone the good life afforded him as an Olympic icon in his native Norway and set off across the dirt roads of Africa. Johann is the founder of Right to Play. In a land saturated with guns and ammunition, Johann is distributing an even more powerful weapon to the children of Africa: joy.
"What do you learn from these games?" Johann asks a young girl who has fled war-torn Somalia, fearing for her life. "We learn how to be friends. We don't fear from our friends." Together with an army of volunteers, teachers, coaches and diplomats, Johann goes into the settlements and refugee camps of Africa, armed with the tools of his trade: soccer balls, hula hoops, blindfolds and chalk. "Right to Play's goals, in addition to having fun and playing." Joahann explains, "They really learn through the games - basic life skills of the child, which could be physical, psychological and social development, or it is in the area of health. prevention messages so they can prepare themselves in protection from diseases. Or, if it's in the area of cooperation and conflict resolution."
"I don't think there's a place we came where they didn't ask if we couldn't reach more children." Johann says, "It's very tragic to meet children who just weeks ago had to run away from their homes with nothing, to come to a settlement because they're afraid of being killed. and some of them have lost family members. I get very emotional and upset when I see this. And I want to show strength, that we are caring for them, that we are here to do something and not only make promises." Johann isn't the kind of man to show up and tour the camps, make some lofty promises, go home and forget. "These images - doesn't matter how many times I see them, I'm always carrying it with me."
All around the world, Johann Olav Koss teaches children the most fundamental lesson. He teaches them to play. "It actually feels greater to have this goal than it was to fight for a gold medal. In many ways it feels like I have an opportunity to give back for all the things I've been given in my life." And for this Olympic champion the things he's giving are easy to see in the children he works with: the joyful smiles, the spring in their step and the eyes that can't help but shine with a new reason to hope.
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"Back in 1994, in Lillehammer, when I watched Johann Olav Koss win his three gold medals in speed skating and break three world records at the same time, I was dazzled by this remarkable achievement. And since then, I’ve been even more dazzled by his success as the founder of Right to Play and it’s growth and impact on children around the world. Now in its twelfth year, Right to Play continues to impress me with it’s dedication to changing the lives of children, and through play, bringing them the one thing that they can’t seem to find anywhere else, HOPE.
I saw this hope on the faces of the children we filmed in Uganda, and there I learned that Right to Play is about much more than teaching kids to play. It’s about giving them the tools they will need to lead successful and productive lives, and to bring peace and change to the world they live in.
Johann and his organization are literally heroes to children in need around the globe. So it’s extremely appropriate and a great honor to accept these two awards from the My Hero Project on behalf of our film on Johann Olav Koss and his incredible organization, Right to Play."
The short film, Right to Play Directed by Frank Marshall, is a finalist in the "Excerpt" category in the 8th annual MY HERO Film Festival.