PHOENIX -- Kassem Akil walked onto the field as a member of the Phoenix soccer team for the first time in 2014. He was a typical skinny freshman just looking for a spot on the team.
"When he first came here, he was just a little guy with skills. We, as a coaching staff, all laughed, because these guys come in as freshman and they're only 13 or 14 years old," Phoenix soccer head coach Dennis Flenner said.
"I was intimidated by a bunch of these kids. They were bigger than me and stronger than me," Akil said.
He played on junior varsity his freshman year, but it was what he experienced his sophomore year that helped him grow into the leader he is now. Akil moved with his mom and dad to Cairo, Egypt after his parents took jobs as teachers there. Just below him was an Egyptian orphange, which housed 3-23 year olds.
"We were on the fifth floor and the orphanage was directly adjacent to where I was living and I'd just look down from the fifth floor and you'd see their cement field, if you want to call it that," Akil said, "It was small and terrible. There were a bunch of potholes and everything. They'd always yell up at me to come play."
Akil accepted their invitation to play soccer and made fast friends with many of them. He felt more connected to them than the children he was going to school with, many of whom came from wealthy backgrounds in Egypt.
"They appreciate a lot of things and they appreciated my contributions both in playing with them and in donating while I was there," Akil said.
The donations he's talking about include some of his soccer jerseys and soccer balls he took from the school he was attending for the first two quarters of the school year. All of the kids were appreciative of his kindness, painting "Thanks Kazim" on the wall next to their soccer "field". Kassem spent less than six months there, but he knew he would be back.
Before the summer of 2017, Kassem had to think of a senior service project. Most kids thought of ways they could help the local community. Kassam thought a little bigger.
"In my short 17 years of life, I have come to believe that with one soccer ball, even the most unfortunate can find happiness and joy with the smallest of gifts," Akil's senior project proposal essay begins.
He set out to get local donations of soccer equipment and money to buy soccer equipment for the Egyptian orphans he had met more than a year earlier as well as Syrian refugees living in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, walking distance from the Syrian border. He partnered with "Soccer Post", a local soccer store, and set up a GoFundMe.
By the time he was ready to fly back overseas, he had 200 pounds of soccer equipment to bring to the Syrian refugee camp. He was able to get in thanks to his cousin, who works for the United Nations in Lebanon.
The GoFundMe page raised $3,000, which he used to buy equipment for the Egyptian orphans once he returned to Egypt.
"The biggest thing I can take from it was seeing the ripple effect that something so small can do," Akil said, "Something I can do can affect everyone."
Akil plans to take a gap year after he graduates this May and travel to South America, where he wants to do something similar for soccer-crazy children there.
"I will do something over there, but in a different way. It will definitely be community service," Akil said.
Akil has sent even more soccer equipment back overseas since the summer. He continues to raise money on the GoFundMe page to feed the mission that started when he put pen to paper and wrote his essay proposal.
"Maybe those I have the privilege of coming into contact with will be able to smile and enjoy, at least for a small moment, a game of soccer."
A fitting end to an essay whose words launched a mission that is only just beginning.
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