“This is the whole office right here,” said Oceanside native Jason Steinberg, patting his silver computer at a Long Beach Road coffee shop. “Starbucks and a laptop.”
The 24-year-old Brooklyn resident, a 2010 Oceanside High School graduate, quit his day job with a book publishing company just weeks ago to focus full-time on his passion: bringing sports and music to people — especially children — facing hardship around the globe. His nonprofit organization, the International Sports and Music Project, is set to launch a soccer program in Greece for Syrian refugees — its third international initiative since its inception in 2015.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2014, Steinberg spent a year teaching English through WorldTeach at a high school on the small island of Pohnpei, Micronesia. While there, he realized how much the children loved basketball. But they had no team.
“I heard my students faking jump shots and calling out NBA players’ names in the way that was very familiar to me,” Steinberg recalled. “Like the same thing that my friends and I did growing up in Oceanside.”
The next week, he invited anyone who was interested to join him on the concrete court — covered in banana leaves — outside the school. Fifty students, mostly high school juniors and seniors, showed up, many playing barefoot. For the teens, staying an extra two hours for basketball meant missing the bus ride to their village, which for some was miles away.
“When they showed up the next day after having walked home for 10 miles with bloody feet …, I was like, ‘All right, we’re onto something here, because obviously it’s having a meaningful impact,’” Steinberg said.
He reached out to family, friends and others through Facebook seeking donations. Within a week, he said, he received enough money to buy sneakers, jerseys and basketballs for the budding athletes. He helped the school start two boys’ teams and a girls’ team, allowing anyone to participate. Then Steinberg began seeing positive changes in the students, mentally and academically.
A peace, war and defense major in college, Steinberg minored in music, and plays guitar and piano. During his school break periods, he would play his guitar, and his students would come and jam with him.
“The basketball and music thing isn’t providing food or water or medicine, but it’s helping them enjoy their life,” he said. “No matter who you are or how much money you have or where you live, you want to enjoy your life. You want to have something to be excited about in the morning.”
After a year, Steinberg left the island and founded ISMP in the summer of 2015. Besides maintaining the basketball program in Micronesia, he wanted to expand the organization. Having studied international law and post-genocide society abroad in Rwanda while at UNC, he worked his contacts and found a child rehabilitation center in need of services. By collaborating with local leaders, ISMP helped set up a basketball program and a music class for the children there — many of whom are orphans.
Most recently, Steinberg’s roommate and former UNC classmate worked at a refugee camp in Greece, and told him about the opportunity to implement similar programs for people who have lost so much during war in their homelands.
“These are people whose houses were bombed,” Steinberg said of the refugees, most of whom are from Syria, but also include Somalis and Afghanis. “[That] is something that we can’t imagine, because we’ve never had war on Oceanside Road East.”
Officially quitting his 9-to-5 job, Steinberg will head to Greece on May 7 to visit the camp of roughly 750 refugees, about one-third of whom are children. By working with the non-governmental organization that runs the camp, Echo 100 Plus, ISMP will explore what type of soccer program will serve the camp best, whether it’s organized leagues or simply providing the refugees with supplies to play.
Either way — as with all of the group’s projects — Steinberg emphasized not going in with too many assumptions, and instead working with community members to avoid what he called an “artificial injection” of ideas. He added that he wants the refugees involved in leadership.
“I’m not planning on coaching soccer; I’m planning on helping these people coach themselves,” Steinberg said. “These people know more about soccer than I do, and I’m going to get smoked out there when I join the game.”
The nonprofit’s latest initiative highlights how far it has come in just two years. What began as a two-man team — Steinberg and his friend, assistant director Eric Branse — now has a board of directors, a computer programmer, a social media coordinator and other professionals donating their time.
Steinberg said that more than ever, he feels happy and energized by what he is doing.
“We think sports and music are those connectors of people between different places,” he said. “It doesn’t matter your age or your race or your country, or if you’re a refugee or not. If you like sports or you like music, then you can vibe on that.”