This article originally appeared in the World Orphans Spring Insight Magazine 2018.

Flashback to early June 1995—I had just graduated from high school and hopped on a plane to spend the summer in Zimbabwe. As a 17-year-old boy with little to offer in terms of medical care, counseling advice, or theology, I knew that finding my role would be key to understanding my purpose on that missions team. Over the coming weeks, I spent hours carefully holding, crying on, praying over, and rocking to sleep dying babies at a pediatric AIDS hospital. I listened to countless stories of street kids—children orphaned in early childhood and destined to live short lives—sniffing glue out of coke bottles and scavenging for anything that would keep them alive for the day.  

Surrounded by this cloudiness of chaos, I remember thinking, “Is there any sense of peace among the clouds?” 

Peace raised her beautiful head . . . in the form of a pig’s bladder. In the distance, I saw children running and laughing for the first time in weeks. I saw joy in their eyes. I saw hope. I saw freedom. I saw children playing soccer, and having been the captain of my high school soccer team, I saw an opportunity to join them. As the ball skipped across the dirt, I chased it. Children began laughing at the sight of a tall, white boy playing keep away, and it wasn’t long before I gained possession of what I thought was a ball. I bent over to pick it up, taken aback by the texture and appearance of the ball.  

Realizing I appeared a bit confused, a couple of the boys approached me and began explaining how they made the ball. They cut out a pig’s bladder, washed it off, made a small cut into the bladder, blew air into it, and sewed it shut. It blew my mind! We played for a while longer until the “ball” popped, and the game was over. The smiles of the children deflated faster than the air in the ball. Realizing I could remedy the situation, I went to grab my backpack. As I reached into my backpack, the children came closer, doing whatever they could to peek inside my bag. One by one, sad tears transformed into happy tears and frowns became smiles. After all, I had the Holy Grail of play! I had a soccer ball. Needless to say, that ball never returned to my backpack, for it found a new home on the streets of Harare.

That lesson early on in my missions career has carried over to how we wholistically care for the thousands of children in our World Orphans partnerships around the world. Author and producer, David Paul Kirkpatrick, simply states, “There is peace in play.” And whether we are in the slums of Ethiopia, the refugee camps in Northern Iraq, or in other areas of the world that are cluttered with the chaos of poverty, violence, and evil, mere glimpses of peace can brighten the day and give hope for tomorrow.  

This is why World Orphans eagerly pursued the unique opportunity to partner with athletes from NBC’s hit show American Ninja Warrior to build a Ninja training course in Haiti. We believe that play is crucial to the wholistic development of orphaned and vulnerable children who have struggled through much grief and tribulation.  

Wholistic care studies show that educational success largely depends on children’s ability to play positively with adults and peers. From an emotional standpoint, play supports emotional development by providing fun and safe ways to express and cope with deep feelings that often don’t arise during conversations. Relationally speaking, according to author Richard Lingard, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Socially, successes and failures during play teach confidence and resilience. Wholistically, psychologist Charles Schaefer, “The Father of Play Therapy,” says, “We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything, than when we are at play.” 

We saw this come to life this past November when months of research, fundraising, and construction led to the completion of our Ninja training course at the Haiti Olympic Training Center on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. The jam-packed day started with a bus ride from one of our partnered churches to the Olympic Training Center. As the children arrived at the course, their jaws dropped, their eyes sparkled, and their smiles burst out of their mouths. Children from families who make less than one dollar per day now had the opportunity to play in a way they had never imagined. The Ninja course took children through a series of obstacles—balancing on slacklines, swinging across Ninja grips, bouncing across tires, skipping across boxes, maneuvering across balance beams, and climbing up a 12-foot wall. After hours of play, the children ate lunch with our team and then returned home in the afternoon, exhausted from a day of carefree playing.  

As we move forward, we’re excited to continue working with American Ninja Warriors to expand what we started, and we’re looking forward to training our Church Partnership and Journey Trip teams to administer the course for children from their partnered Haitian churches. For the children in our program, balancing, swinging, bouncing, skipping, and climbing are a vital part of both healing and learning.