Lieven Syester, who lives in Santa Rosa, California, each summer, was impressed when his soccer team there started to collect cleats for countries devastated by natural disaster, so he asked his Missoula school to join in.

“Then it kind of shifted and they needed everything,” said the 10-year-old student at the independent Sussex School. “They’re the ones originally doing the good deed and collecting for people. And now they need the clothes because they have nothing.”

Wildfires in northern California razed the community, burning thousands of houses to the ground and killing dozens. Nearly 50 families with kids on a Santa Rosa United team no longer have a home. The community’s soccer fields are gone, too. The youth club hopes to collect enough athletic wear and soccer gear to play this fall season, which Diana Syester described as an effort to create some normalcy amid tragedy.

“It takes a long time to get everything replaced that was lost and get back to normal,” she told her son’s class.  

After learning of the disaster in California, the focus of the class project changed. Instead of Costa Rica or Peru, they would gather gear for Santa Rosa. The local youth soccer club Missoula Strikers also helped, allowing collection boxes to be placed at a recent tournament and donating dozens of pairs of new shorts, socks and shirts. A FedEx store donated boxes for the charitable delivery.

On Wednesday, Syester and his classmates packed the donations, adding letters of encouragement and soccer-related drawings.

Teacher Jodi Kulina said the school supports community service as part of its mission and incorporates service learning into each grade level. That and the fact many students play soccer themselves made the project a natural fit.

Marketing and development coordinator Joellen Shannon called soccer “a common denominator” that unites diverse and far-apart communities. Disaster can do the same.

She said Syester’s idea resonated with Missoulians “because of our summer here with wildfires and smoke.”

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Education Reporter

Education and special projects reporter at The Missoulian.