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The winning partnership between Levi’s and Special Olympics

The joy of participation
The joy of participation
Special Olympics

Part 2 All we wanted were 10 soccer balls.

It was 1979 and I was a volunteer with the San Francisco Special Olympics. One of our athletes was Joey and Joey had down-syndrome. He was about as round and he was tall, and he was always running, always smiling, always coming up to me saying, “Coach, what are we doing next?” Very special people like Joey are why I wanted to be part of Special Olympics. And Joey wanted to play soccer. But we didn’t have a soccer program. We realized that soccer would be one of the easiest sports that could reach almost all of our athletes, and at very little cost. We had free use of sports fields, all of our athletes had some form of a running or tennis shoe and we had volunteers with some background in soccer. All we needed were the soccer balls – about ten dollars each.

Like any nonprofit, we didn't want to pay for anything we could otherwise get donated, so we connected with a friend who worked in the Community Relations Department at San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co. We asked her if Levi’s would donate $100 to buy 10 soccer balls for our new program.Levi’s agreed and the first Special Olympics soccer program in San Francisco was born. And Joey was ecstatic.

We soon realized, however, that we didn't have enough volunteers to handle the number of athletes now interested in playing soccer. We then went back to Levi’s and asked if they might have some volunteers to help us.They did and our soccer program grew even more.

Levi’s Employee Relations Department took notice of this enthusiasm from their employees and wrote an article in the company newsletter. That brought not only greater recognition to our program but even more volunteers. Then a local newspaper did a story on this burgeoning relationship between Levi’s and Special Olympics. In time, one of Levi’s executives joined our Board of Directors. Levi was also becoming one of the largest financial supporters of our Special Olympics program.

Meanwhile, apart from being a board member of San Francisco Special Olympics, my day job was Director of Public Relations for the United States Olympic Committee. I was gearing up for the 1980 Olympic Summer Games in Moscow. But the Cold War was getting hotter, Russia invaded Afghanistan, and because of that, President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States was boycotting the Olympic Games. From this huge disappointment came a surprise gift.

Fred Banks, then president of Levi's Women’s Wear division, called me up. He said, “Bruce as you certainly know, Levi’s was the official team outfitter for the U.S. Olympic team and because we are not going to the Olympic Games we have all of the official U.S. Olympic Team uniforms and warm-ups. We cannot sell or use them in any commercial manner, and they’re just sitting in a warehouse.” Then Fred said the most amazing thing: “Would you be interested in Levi’s donating these Olympic Team uniforms to Special Olympics?” After I picked myself up off the floor, we discussed the logistics.

One of the most moving experiences imaginable is watching Special Olympics athletes enter a stadium for their games. Every athlete is brimming with pride and excitement. Now imagine that following summer at stadiums across the country, Special Olympics athletes making their entrance while wearing the official uniforms of the 1980 United States Olympic team, emblazoned with a large USA across the back. To everyone involved, it was a magical, emotional moment.

The relationship between the Special Olympics and Levi's kept growing. It certainly helped the Special Olympics. But in terms of positive media coverage, employee morale and much more, it also helped Levi's.

And it all started with 10 soccer balls.

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