Westport boy got a kick out of helping others in World Cup sojourn
Children in a poor, rural town in South Africa -- many of them orphans whose parents died from AIDS -- were overjoyed in late June when they received more than 70 pounds of soccer balls, athletic gear, cleats and school supplies. Some of the shirts were imprinted with the word "Westport." However, the donations weren't courtesy of the internationally known, Westport-based relief agency, Save the Children.
Instead, a 9-year-old Westport boy helped to organize the global gift of friendship. Rob Diorio, a fourth-grader at Kings Highway Elementary School, spearheaded the project after his family made plans to travel to South Africa for the World Cup soccer competition.
Rob, who knows that his life in Westport is far more privileged than the hardships regularly faced by children in Welverdiend, felt compelled to do something to help when his mother said she wanted the family to visit several villages not far from World Cup action during their trip.
With donations from the school community, the Westport Soccer Association and other sources, including Westport Sunrise Rotary Club, the Diorio family arrived in South Africa bearing gifts like Santa Claus. However, all the donations (balls, clothes and school supplies) were too large for their carry-on luggage, even though they deflated the soccer balls, one of many tips learned from non-profit organization, Pack with a Purpose. What they couldn't get on the plane with them was shipped to a local branch of Johannesburg University.
Rob, who plays rec and travel soccer, said that he was proud to have set a goal and then accomplish it.
"We flew all the way to South Africa and delivered all the soccer balls," he said. "I felt bad that they had less than others have. I felt good that we were donating so they would have materials to play and learn."
While most children Rob's age in America tend to be fans of baseball, football or basketball, Rob's a die-hard soccer fan. Credit his father, Stephen, for that. The elder Diorio lived in Italy when he was a child and grew up watching and playing soccer. Not surprisingly, the national team of Italy is both Diorios' favorite.
Rob's mother, Lyn Hogan, doesn't share the same love for the sport, but said she's becoming a fan now. "I watch all my son's soccer games," she said.
Though Rob is a huge soccer fan, over time he will likely forget the scores of the games, as well as the plays, that had him cheering during the World Cup matches. What he witnessed and experienced in Welverdiend, however, will likely stay with him far longer.
Among other things, he visited the village's school building, learned about a local child's typical school day; visited villagers' homes; learned how they make their own mud bricks to construct their homes; saw how villagers collect rainwater from their homes' roofs and collect it in barrels, and watched people grow and harvest corn for the mainstay of their diet -- corn mush. Rob joined villagers for a traditional lunch and met the village leader. One thing Rob did not do was partake in a meal that included cooked worms.
"We weren't quite as adventurous," Hogan said, although her husband and daughter Anna did try the local delicacy.
Rob also visited "the bush" on a safari ride and got to see lions and other wildlife in their natural habitat.
"My favorite animal was the buffalo," he said.
Hogan said not all children are lucky enough to go overseas to take in their favorite sport, so she wanted Rob to be educated as well as entertained during the trip to South Africa.
"I wanted to make sure that it was a good learning experience for him in many ways," said Hogan, "and I wanted him and my daughter (who is four and one-half years old) to see how other people in the world live and the types of things they struggle with."
She added, "In particular, I wanted them to see how hard life can be and how many people around the world worry every day about meeting their basic needs, such as having water, food and shelter."
Hogan said the residents of Welverdiend aren't even living as well as Americans in the 1600s.
"There's no indoor plumbing, no electricity. There was no kerosene oil. Their buildings were made of sticks," she said. Despite their humble living conditions, the locals didn't seem unhappy. What they have -- rather, what they don't have -- is all they've ever known.
After the family returned home to the United States, Rob told his mom he hoped the donated soccer balls and other supplies would make their lives a little easier as well as give the children something to enjoy.
Even there's no international soccer tourney planned in South Africa anytime soon, Rob "would love to go back," Hogan said. Soccer lured him to that nation, but helping others has fueled his desire to return.