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Arn Tellem

Arn Tellem

Posted: December 23, 2009 01:07 PM

Peace of My Heart

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Fourteen years ago I saw a segment of 60 Minutes about a camp in Maine at which Arab and Israeli teenagers spent a summer together trying to overcome their differences. The campgrounds looked faintly familiar. And they were: The woodsy setting was Camp Powhatan, where, in the summer of 1969, I had watched a man walk on the moon and carved my name on the headboard of bunk 15.

Camp Powhatan catered mostly to kids from New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. In 1993 it was converted to the Seeds of Peace International Camp by John Wallach, a former newspaper editor whose parents escaped from Nazi Germany. By bringing together children from opposing sides of conflicts around the world, Wallach hoped to foster peaceful coexistence.

The youngsters -- mostly Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian teenagers, picked as delegates by their respective governments -- lived together in cabins and were encouraged to canoe, swim and play sports together. (American teens helped mediate with the aid of trained counselors). In subsequent years, Seeds of Peace opened to, among others, Turks and Greeks from Cyprus; Serbs, Bosnians and Croats from the Balkans; Indians and Pakistanis; and children from ethnic factions in Afghanistan. To date, Seeds of Peace has empowered nearly 4,000 youngsters with the skills required to advance dialogue and reconciliation. When campers return home, the conflict-resolution model continues through regional follow-up programs in their own countries. With little or no fanfare, Seeds alumni have moved into major leadership roles. Today, early campers sit at the negotiating tables of Israel and Palestine. At a time when the news is dominated by hucksters, scam artists and self-inflated blowhards, it's refreshing to see an unobtrusive organization whose deeds match its words.

Back in 1995, shortly after the 60 Minutes segment aired, one of my wife's friends, film and TV producer Deb Newmyer, told us that she was involved in Seeds of Peace. She suggested that we get involved, too. It's now been almost a decade since I joined the board of trustees. I make a point to visit the camp every summer. I'm amazed at how little the place that has changed over all these years. My first leap into Pleasant Lake never fails to rejuvenate me.

I always come to camp with some of my NBA clients. My guests have included Antawn Jamison, Mike Dunleavy, Jr., T.J. Ford, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge, Wayne Ellington, Jason and Jarron Collins, Brook and Robin Lopez, Tyreke Evans, Gerald Henderson, Etan Thomas, Brian Scalabrine, and Brent Barry. The players hold basketball clinics and sit in on "co-existence sessions" in which students raised to espouse diametrically opposed beliefs about the same issues struggle to understand each other's points of view. They hear what it means to live in fear of Israeli soldiers or Palestinian suicide bombers, and share meals with kids who are often meeting their counterparts "from the other side" for the first time. For Seeds campers, these visits from pro athletes become a highlight of their summer. Sports, observes Seeds executive director, Leslie Adelson Lewin, are activities in which "so-called enemies can play together seamlessly as teammates and work together -- on the field or on the court-- without political divides."

For their part, the pros take away from the experience as much as they give. Many tell me that they now follow current events in the Middle East and have a better understanding of the issues there. Some remain in touch with campers who have returned to Palestine, Israel, Egypt and Jordan. Two of my clients, B.J. Armstrong and Jordan Farmar, were so inspired that they participated in clinics in the Middle East. So has Omar Minaya, general manager of the New York Mets.

Aware of my interest in hoops and world geopolitics, Ron Shapiro -- my fellow sports agent and Haverford College alumni -- suggested that I check out another nonprofit outfit called Peace Players International. Founded by brothers Brendan and Sean Tuohey, the organization uses basketball to bridge barriers in regions historically riven by strife. Over the last eight years, nearly 50,000 children in Northern Ireland, South Africa, Israel, the West Bank and Cyprus have taken part in the charity's clinics and tournaments. "Put kids from anywhere on a basketball team, and the competition will bond them," Brendan says. "We focus on 10- to 14-year-olds because they're at an age when racial prejudice and religious intolerance haven't fully taken hold."

Brendan and Sean, who grew up hoops fanatics in Washington D.C., have recruited fellow players as coaches, who share their optimism. Their American program directors go for a one-year stint in what Sean calls "a Peace Corps for athletes." Besides teaching basketball fundamentals and instilling a sense of teamwork, they construct courts, train coaches and, in South Africa, AIDS awareness. For the last few years, I've taken pro players to the Peace Players branch in Belfast to give them a sense of the complexities of growing up in a post-conflict society. Jason Kapono, Mike Dunleavy, and Brent and Jon Barry have all accompanied me and immersed themselves in the program. Next summer I hope to bring players to the Peace Players outpost in Durban.

Considering all the trouble in the world, I'm thankful that organizations like Peace Players and Seeds of Peace give us hope for the future. (Seeds was just named one of the top 100 charities in the Chase Community Giving Challenge on Facebook). True, they're not organizations that will ever have thousands of followers forming a mass movement with public constituencies. But they do promote understanding and empower new leadership. And they are making a difference. If only for that alone, they deserve our support and attention.