Lauren Benner decided to combine two of her passions—soccer and volunteering—and the winning combination has caught the eye of Nike.
Benner, 17, a junior at Aliso Niguel High School with a 4.3 GPA, has been playing club soccer for 10 years for such teams as the SC Blues, which has won state, regional and national championships. Nearly all of her teammates are destined for top schools, many with full scholarships. She wants to attend school on the East Coast and, hopefully, work for the CIA.
In the meantime, Benner decided to meld her love of the game and giving back last year when she started a small charity to support an orphanage in Tijuana called cleatsforacause.org.
She reached out to soccer clubs and schools for old soccer and other sports equipment. The items collected are driven to the orphanage, Lily of the Valley, where the kids benefit from the items. But things came to a standstill, and she had to think fast.
"After draining the local sports economy for used equipment, she went bold last month and lobbied executives at Nike, Adidas, and Puma," said her father,
But a few weeks ago, Nike sent her $5,000 in new soccer equipment—stuff that has not yet hit the stores.
"This was a real shot in the arm for her efforts. We have not made the trip down, but we plan to within the next few weeks to give the items to the kids in the orphanage," he said.
The young Benner this week is finishing up her school year, which includes four AP classes and first-string orchestra. She also works at the as a science intern. Needless to say, she's busy.
But Laguna Niguel Patch recently caught up with Benner and asked some questions about her quest to help help others.
Laguna Niguel Patch: Where did you get the inspiration to help kids who might need the equipment?
Lauren Benner: Club soccer travels takes you to many different cities and states throughout the country. When we travel locally, we sometimes play in impoverished areas, and there are times when you come in contact with people less fortunate than we are. That got me thinking and I was exposed to the poverty issues across the border through my church. The church has a mission to build houses in and around Tijuana. So, when I learned that a Mexican family on my sister's team was looking for items to help fund the Lily of the Valley orphanage in Tijuana, it just clicked ... it made a lot of sense.
Patch: How about donating any equipment locally?
Benner: Our efforts so far have targeted the orphanage, but there is a real opportunity to also help fund some of the club teams in Santa Ana, for example, that could also use better equipment.
Patch: What's the fascination with soccer? You've been at it for 10 years. That's a long time.
Benner: I started playing club at the age of 9. I love the competition, and I like knowing that I'm relatively good at it ... not great, but good enough to have fun when I am competing. In the So Cal club scene, when you get to be 12 or 13, the realization that club soccer can be a meaningful differentiator for college pursuits begins to be a real motivator for focusing on development. A number of U.S. Olympians have come from the Blues, and it has been a great journey.
Patch: When your efforts ended locally for help, you turned to the big companies, e.g., Nike. Impressive. What helped you to forge ahead and not give up?
Benner: Well, I was at a tournament a number of months ago called Surf Cup in San Diego. I think it is the biggest soccer tournament in the nation, with teams from all over the U.S. and as far away as Hawaii and Japan. The tournament is sponsored by Nike, and as you walk into the playing field, there is a large Nike store. It got me thinking. Companies such as Nike, Puma and Adidas get so much from households such as mine (we have three club players in our house, and it is very expensive to keep us all outfitted and equipped). I started to wonder what these companies do to 'give back.' I knew our small charity was running into a dry well. We had given everything, and I wasn't getting the response I wanted from local clubs.
Patch: How did you reach out to them?
Benner: I was able to track down the marketing VPs of soccer for Nike, Puma and Adidas. I wrote a letter that I thought was passionate. I also gave them my charity's Web address, and we hoped for the best. Out of the blue, Nike sent brand new CONCACAF balls—boxes of them. We couldn't believe it.
Patch: Did anyone else help you with the development of the charity?
Benner: My dad helped me design the website. That was the biggest hurdle. My mom, who is Latina, was able to write to the charity and correspond in Spanish.
Patch: When will you make the trip to deliver the items?
Benner: We're linking with our friends who introduced us to the orphanage. We'll likely tie our trip with theirs to make the biggest impact.
Patch: What drives you?
Benner: I am the first of four children, so I feel sometimes that I have a responsibility to maximize what my parents have given all of us. School and soccer are sort of like jobs for me. I stay focused because I have a dream to enter the U.S. Foreign Service or CIA. I have had this dream for years, and I know how competitive the field is. I guess those two things—that is, my goal to make my parents proud and my passion to serve our country—are what keeps me going on days when I have school, practice, my internship ...
Patch: Any other community efforts?
Benner: I, and a number of other fellow students, are part of the National Honor Society. As members, we are encouraged to serve the community. I volunteer as a marine science intern at the Ocean Institute (I have been there since my freshman year) and I also tutor other ANHS students in math.
Patch: You aren't the typical teenager ...
Benner: I don't consider myself unique in that respect. In this area, a lot of high-performing parents are very involved in their children's lives. Many of my classmates strive to help the community as much as they can. A few of my friends work at the Boys & Girls Clubs after school or volunteer at Mission Hospital. I wanted to help communities abroad through something I enjoyed—soccer. In many ways, compared with my friends and teammates, I am—in many ways—a 'typical' teenager.
Patch: Words of wisdom to teens your age?
Benner: Help your community through something you genuinely care about. Don't volunteer just to accumulate hours for college applications. Chances are that you aren't helping anyone by volunteering for selfish reasons.
Patch: How has developing the charity helped your own life?
Benner: I think I live for the moment more. Just recently, my family went to the beach, dinner, the movies. The movie was terrible, but I was thinking to myself how lucky we are. I have nice clothes, parents who love me, we live in an amazing city, and we are fortunate enough to eat out and enjoy a movie. The people that my small efforts help have never known the luxuries that I enjoy every day. I thank God for what I have.