Team Red Bowl
Under the bright African sun, children are playing soccer. Only one of the children speaks English, but their squeals of delight can be translated across any language. For Edmond resident Tracy Zserdin, watching her 8-year-old son, Jake, connect to children on the other side of the world is what it’s all about.
“I just want him to know that every person has value, no matter what skin color they have, no matter what continent they’re on,” Zserdin says of her decision to travel with her son to South Africa this summer as a part of a nonprofit movement called Team Red Bowl. “I want him to know that this life isn’t all about him. We’re not just here to get our next toy … to know that we have a short time here, we have an opportunity to help other people,” she said. And it was an opportunity to help others that got Zserdin and the rest of her family involved in Team Red Bowl, an initiative from international nonprofit organization Joint Aid Mission or JAM.
JAM began in 1984 when its South African founder, Peter Pretorius was stranded at a food distribution center in Mozambique, according to Zserdin. There, he saw more than 300 people die from malnutrition and resolved to develop programs to allow his country to help itself. Now, JAM has operations in seven countries and several programs that include economic and nutritional initiatives, according to their website. Team Red Bowl is one such program.
The program helps feed more than 500,000 children in schools and malnutrition centers daily, according to the website. With the organization’s desired expansion for raising funds and awareness in the United States and a chance meeting between Zserdin’s husband and Pretorius’ son, the Zserdin family in January became the first fundraising team in the United States. By June, Zserdin was in South Africa. Being a team means the Zserdin family committed to finding 200 people to each fill a bowl. “Filling a bowl costs 50 dollars and will feed a child for an entire year,” Zserdin explained.
“It’s really, really simple; to me it’s kind of a no-brainer. Fifty dollars to me is one night out and if I’m willing to sacrifice one night out, I can fill a tummy of a child for one year,” she said and adds that fundraising possibilities are endless. “What’s so easy about Team Red Bowl is I can raise the money any way I want. I can do garage sales, whatever I want; it just kind of opens the doors to creativity.”
The first people to join her team and donate were her two children. It was their commitment that helped her put aside any fears of taking her son on such a long journey. “It was one of those things where it is a little scary because you just never really know what could happen,” she said.But she and Jake wanted to witness the work Team Red Bowl was doing. “I just wanted to be able to give people in Oklahoma a firsthand experience, saying ‘don’t just give to this organization but we went there, we did it.’”
During their journey, the Zserdins witnessed the organization’s impact by feeding children these meals, a porridge-like food full of more than 70 percent of a child’s daily nutritional needs. “Everywhere we went the teachers were just like, ‘you don’t realize how you’re changing lives.’ One of the men we spoke to equate these children to flowers: If you take care of them and you feed them, they grow and turn into beautiful things. Another man held up a red bowl and said, ‘This red bowl is life.Without this red bowl we don’t have life.’”
Zserdin said the organization is working to combat the impact of early childhood malnutrition to better prevent health-related and learning difficulties later in life. “Truly these children will not eat if we don’t fill that bowl; most of these kids, that’s the only meal they receive in a day.” Filling the bowl is a foundation for everything, Zserdin says. “It enables these kids to learn and education changes lives, but you cannot learn if you’re not being fed, so it just comes down to the basics. It’s just a huge crazy impact. I wish everyone in Edmond could see it, because it’s just really unbelievable.”
Edmond residents would also see how committed to their schooling the children are. “We went to 12 different schools and not once did I see a teacher get on to a kid. They were all extremely well-behaved,” she said. The children also had to shoulder responsibility far greater than their young ages. “Some of the kids, even younger than my son, would have an infant tied to their backs and brought their brother or sister to school with them and just took care of them while they sat on the dirt and did school. The teachers, when they filled their bowls, gave them a little bit extra so they could feed their siblings.”
What someone might also see in Africa is a beautiful way of life that Zserdin has found and has incorporated into her family life here. “They don’t have TV, they don’t have radio; we drove for hours and hours just to get to where they were. They just sit around and talk and they dance,” she said of some of the communities she visited. “Our family has really tried to do some unplugging on the weekends and just play in the yard and not everybody go to their own little iPod area.”
Jake didn’t mind the lack of technology on his trip. “He had an amazing time. He didn’t want to come home. He absolutely loved being there. He was so sweet with those kids, they couldn’t communicate, but recess is recess,” Zserdin says. And recess was made more exciting by the introduction of soccer balls that Zserdin and Jake brought with them along with school supplies from Deer Creek schools to each of the schools they visited. “As soon as (Jake) would pull out that soccer ball, they lit up, because they inflate condoms and either wrap banana leaves or rags around them, and we paid four dollars each for these soccer balls and you would’ve thought we had dropped a pot of gold in their laps,” she says.
Now that they are home, Zserdin says she is really trying to spread the movement and build teams. It is a process as equally rewarding for the individual as it is for those in need. “I just think it’s deciding that I’m not going to live a life that’s all about me, and find whatever you’re passionate about, whatever motivates you,” she said. “For our family, it’s Team Red Bowl and if people want to be a part of that, that is fabulous.”
To join the team, go to www.teamredbowl.com and click on the red bowl over Oklahoma on the map graphic to email Zserdin and get involved.