He Does What He Loves One Day a Year and it Saves Children’s Lives

05/20/16

J.T. Knowlton has come up with his own version of the perfect day, and a way to live it over and over again. To call his idea life-changing may sound dramatic, almost too good to be true. Until you see the effect it’s had. 

 
It all started around Christmastime more than a decade ago. J.T. is not a fan of buying Christmas gifts. He’s not the Grinch; he just feels passionately about giving gifts with deep significance. So when he learned about the opportunity to sponsor a child through Children of the Nations (COTN), he was thrilled. This was exactly the kind of thing he’d been looking for. 
 
He sponsored six children in Sierra Leone that year as a gift for his large extended family. Little did he know what would come next or where it would lead them.
 
Not long after, J.T. and his wife found themselves facing a difficult financial situation. They couldn’t afford to keep sponsoring the children, but the thought of letting them go didn’t sit right with J.T. “You don’t want to start something like that and then not be able to finish it,” he said, thinking of his own children. “You have kids, you don’t get to turn your kids in.”
 
A ten-year rebel war decimated Sierra Leone’s infrastructure and population, and left 320,000 children orphaned. More recently, the country faced the devastating Ebola virus. 
 
J.T. knew what these children were facing. He’d heard stories from his brother, who worked as a merchant marine on oil tankers. While docked in Freetown, Sierra Leone, his brother watched the dock workers spend endless hours loading and unloading ships in the harbor. The men would carry large bags of rice on their backs and when even a few grains of rice fell, they’d scoop it up, heedless of the dirt and grime on the docks. 
 
It quickly became apparent that life here was a struggle for basic survival. J.T.’s brother watched as a laborer died during his shift and was tossed off the dock while a new worker took his place. Life in other parts of Sierra Leone wasn't much better. 
 
“I thought about the kids that my brother told me about who were eating whatever out of the gutter,” J.T. says. “And then of course when I saw what COTN was doing, it was on. It was full focus, whatever I could do to help.”
 
J.T.’s seen first-hand how following your passion can change people’s lives. “It’s real simple,” he says. “What do you love to do, who do you know that does it, say a prayer, and go and invite them.”
 
J.T. decided to act on an idea he’d come up with during a leadership course: share his love of soccer with others and change the world. He called up his friend, Louie Bond, and together they launched the first Kitsap Cup tournament. They booked the only day available at the local indoor soccer center: January 1. 
 
Looking back, J.T. never dreamed the Kitsap Cup would become a New Year's Day tradition for local soccer lovers. “We love that day,” he says. “It’s like [the movie] Groundhog Day. Every year we just want to live that same day over and over again. Hundreds of people show up and as a result these kids are getting love and clothing and food and shelter and a hope and a future, so it’s a beautiful thing.” 
 
J.T.’s idea has been a powerful agent for change, but he says it starts simply, by doing what you’re most passionate about. “It’s effortless when it’s your passion,” he says. “The people who are also inspired by that, it naturally pulls them in. It’s like magnetism.”
 
Children in Sierra Leone love playing soccer. It means a lot to them to know people in the United States are using soccer to raise support on their behalf.  
 
It’s more than just a love of soccer that keeps players coming back year after year. They’ve become attached to the children too. Each team plays for the sponsorship of one child. They carry a photo of that child with them throughout the day, like a team banner. They can write letters to that child and read letters the child has written. Building these ties is changing the culture of the tournament. Now teams ask to play for the child they sponsored the previous year. 
 
The tournament has grown so big that this year 30 children were sponsored. It’s becoming the soccer event of the season. Hundreds of people show up to watch and play. This year pro and international players participated. “It’s phenomenal,” J.T. says. “It’s not just a scrap game.” 
 
Each team plays for the sponsorship of one child. Throughout the day they carry a photo of that child with them. Many teams request to play for the same sponsored child year after year.
 
The event now includes a raffle, and this year the Seattle Sounders donated a jersey signed by every player on the team. “The family who won it this year, they’re the biggest Sounders fans I’ve ever met.” J.T. says. “It’s [hanging] over their fireplace. They’re raving.” 
 
The tournament is now inspiring other people in the community to embrace their own version of it. This year a local group is hosting an Ultimate Frisbee tournament that is already slated to raise a few thousand dollars. 
 
J.T.’s dream is to see more and more people make this simple formula their own. “If for one day a year you got together those you love and did what you love and put your money on the mission, the world would be a different place,” says J.T. “Literally that’s all you have to do. You’ll find two or three people who will go, ‘Oh my gosh, what can I do to help?’ Next thing you know you’ll be living Groundhog Day every year and you’ll love it."
 
Start your own fundraising event or find other ways to get involved with COTN today!
 
You can listen to this story on the Beyond the Village podcast here.