When the first images were sent back of smiling school children in South Africa playing soccer wearing Nonnewaug jerseys, athletic director Declan Curtin could not have been prouder.
When the pictures of the smiling children and story of how they came to be wearing Nonnewaug gear was made public, a local non-profit group as well as other schools in the state began asking how they could get involved.
When the images hit social media, the project took on a whole new life and continues to grow.
Curtin was looking for a project the athletic department could get involved with back in October.
As it turned out, Region 14 superintendent Joseph Olzacki had connections to a South African community in Cape Town in need of athletic equipment.
As is the case at most schools, locked away in a closet at Nonnewaug were seasons worth of old soccer uniforms no longer being worn.
With help from Nonnewaug’s Athletic Council, Curtin packaged up the uniforms as well as some balls and cones which were sitting in storage and sent them to the children in the Khayelitsha neighborhood of Cape Town.
“A few days after the uniforms were sent, I got pictures of the kids in Nonnewaug jerseys and they were all so happy,” Curtin said. “We sent the photos to the Republican-American and once they did a story, the response was unbelievable. It kind of took off once the pictures were out of these kids wearing uniforms with Nonnewaug on them. We have had Lewis Mills, Newtown and New Fairfield reach out and Futbol Friends International offered to pay the shipping costs, which were $1,300.”
Futbol Friends International helps provide children around the world with athletic equipment they are not able to afford or have access to.
The organization was the first to step forward, raising an additional $3,000 in one day once word went out to the Nonnewaug athletic community, led by the girls soccer team.
The team spent the day on social media promoting the fundraiser and collecting donations.
Mia Higgins, a senior on Nonnewaug’s girls soccer team and president of the Nonnewaug Athlete’s Council was excited to jump in and help any way she and her teammates could and spearheaded the drive.
“Mr. Curtin had it mostly planned, but we thought it was important to get the word out on social media,” Higgins said. “We are so fortunate to have nice fields to play on, good equipment, nice uniforms. We wanted to do our part to help other people who don’t have the same opportunities we have. Raising $3,000 was incredible and we are so thankful to the other schools that have donated uniforms. It’s incredible to have this community that does things like this.”
Higgins said seeing the photos of Cape Town children in Nonnewaug jerseys was something she will always cherish.
“I teared up when I saw the pictures, I’m not going to lie,” Higgins said. “My heart felt so warm. We were proud to help, but once we saw the pictures of the kids and they were so happy, it meant so much more to all of us.”
Curtin said Higgins and other girls soccer players made raising the $3,000 possible through their determination.
“Our athletic council has great leadership. Last year they collected a ton of food and this year they did this,” Curtin said. “Mia Higgins from our girls soccer team has been involved with Futbol Friends in the past. The girls soccer team stepped in because they want to make a significant contribution to society. They helped raise that money and did it without wanting any recognition. I didn’t even know they were doing it.”
Along with the fundraising at Nonnewaug, other schools in the state began calling Curtin and looking through their own storage closets for items to donate.
Mark Ottusch is in his first year as New Fairfield athletic director and was looking for community service projects for his department when he saw photos online of the children wearing Nonnewaug gear.
“We had been looking for places to donate our old uniforms and then I saw the story on the Region 14 website and thought that would be perfect,” Ottusch said. “We have to go through all of them, who knows what they might get. Maybe some old field hockey stuff. It would be cool to see the kids in Rebels gear.”
Ottusch said while he would like students to get involved in the future, with New Fairfield students participating in school remotely it was not possible to let this project be student driven.
At Newtown, freshman girls soccer and varsity track and field coach Becky Knapp saw an Instagram post with the children from South Africa in the Nonnewaug uniforms and she forwarded the link to athletic director Matthew Memoli. They then gathered and cleaned old uniforms to send to Curtin.
Nonnewaug is planning a cleat drive for the same Cape Town children in January since many of the children are playing barefoot, according to Curtin.