In 2012 Michael Ott spent 2 weeks volunteering at PeacePlayers sites in the Middle East and Cyprus. Currently Michael is doing financial planning and investor relations for a small, public oil and gas company in Denver, CO. Below Michael shares his experiences spending time overseas and how it effected him.
How I heard about PPI:
I heard about PPI through a family friend, and PPI Board Member, RC Buford, during a conversation right before I graduated college in May 2008. I was talking with him about all the international traveling and scouting he does for his organization, the San Antonio Spurs, as the General Manager. That conversation ended up veering off towards a discussion about PeacePlayers, one of his true passions outside of work. He told me about program, where they had operations up and running, and how much he enjoys watching the program grow and the relationships he has developed with the kids, fellows, and coaches.
Why I wanted to volunteer:
After having that conversation with RC in 2008, I went to work for the next 4 years in Dallas, TX, spending part of that time with a hedge fund and the rest with a consulting firm. Once I started to think about going back to school for an MBA, I started to consider all the ways I could differentiate myself from the other candidates. My mentors advised that top schools look for candidates with international exposure in some form and they look for candidates who truly extend themselves to make a difference in every aspect of their life (job, volunteer work, and other experiences outside of work like athletics, organizational leadership, community leadership, etc.). PeacePlayers was the first thing I thought about when I heard that advice. PeacePlayers was the ideal opportunity to gain international exposure, experience and learn about current and historical geopolitical environments, and do it all while working within the framework of my favorite sport.
The experience is hard to describe within a couple sentences, but, to be short, it was incredible and much more than I expected. Fortunately, I was able to visit the Middle East and Cyprus locations for one week each during my trip.
My first week with PPI-Middle East I was thrown into the mix early and often. I visited with about 8 different boys and girls teams that ranged in age from 11 to 15 years old around Jerusalem, Ramallah (West Bank), and Beit Shemesh. I helped coach them through dribbling drills, shooting drills, and inter-squad scrimmages. At the end of my time with PPI-ME, I was able to join some of the Jerusalem teams on a trip to Tel-Aviv to give a program update and play basketball with local representatives of the US Embassy and US Aid which provide funding for PPI-ME.
My second week was spent with PPI-Cyprus which is based out of Nicosia. I joined the PPI fellows as they made their trips around the island to visit with coaches, work with the teams, and coordinate with local leaders to make sure teams had a place to practice within each community. I remember visiting with about 8 boys and girls teams that ranged in age from 6 years old to 15 years old around Nicosia, Limassol, Larnaca, Iskele and Kyrenia. For a lot of the kids, basketball was a very new sport, so we spent a lot of time going over the fundamentals of basketball (dribbling, shooting, passing, etc) to help them develop a good foundation to take into each of their twinnings with other teams around Cyprus.
How it affected me:
Two things I remember best from my trip was the language barrier and attitudes of all the local people I interacted with. Before I left on the trip, I figured the most difficult part would be overcoming the language barrier. Socially, this was true, but when it came to experience of teaching basketball, it was actually a benefit (or at least felt like one). It isn’t always easy to explain the sport of basketball; it is one of those sports where a lot of what is learned is acquired through spectating. Not being able to speak the language helped make teaching things more deliberate. Everyone has to make good eye contact and focus on what is being communicated. I found that I could even make jokes and be goofy with the kids without being able to speak to each other. Second, the attitudes of people I interacted with varied so much that I had to remind myself about what I should talk about with certain people. Some people completely oppose the goals that PPI has set out to accomplish within their country and community. I recall even being laughed at when I told someone why I was in Cyprus. I realized soon after I got there how difficult and massive this undertaking is by PPI, because many in the community did not support the idea of bringing the two sides/cultures, after years of conflict, together. I remember asking one of the PPI-Cyprus fellows, “Do you ever get a little overwhelmed by the resistance you face and little amount of time you have within this role?” The fellow made an analogy to turning a speed boat versus turning a cruise liner. There would be no quick fixes for the problems PPI has set out to solve, but progress is progress, and seeing the enthusiasm and excitement from the coaches and kids within each program makes you quickly forget how big the problems actually are. PeacePlayers is doing amazing work and it didn’t take much time with each program to understand that. In a world of internet and social media, where news, ideas, and introductions happen faster than we can measure, I think PeacePlayers’ efforts will play a huge role in bringing these cultures together as the kids grow up. They have a pretty simple motto that says a lot, “If you can play together, you can live together.”