OTISFIELD — They hail from nine countries, mostly geographic neighbors but divided by invisible walls that might as well extend a million miles into the heavens.
Thursday morning they wore the same colors — the green Seeds of Peace camp t-shirt — and spoke the universal languages of sports and music.
One hundred fifty teenagers sang and rapped to Journey, Run-DMC and Sugarhill Gang as their songs, written and performed long before the kids were born, thundered from the sound system.
They whooped, hollered and high-fived as camp director Wil Smith introduced a record-long list of athletic dignitaries.
And somewhere in the back of their minds, they pictured the homelands to which they will return in little more than two weeks, imagining that someday it could be like this.
“To be honest, I don’t know all of them,” Yaara, a girl from Israel, said of the athletes. “It makes the camp special. It brings good vibes into the area, and everybody is excited to see them. Hopefully having those people here will spread our cause and our words of peace.”
The uninitiated would see one of sports’ premier power couples — soccer champion Mia Hamm and former Boston Red Sox shortstop — and wonder why they would sacrifice a day of retirement and parenthood at a remote youth camp in the foothills of Maine.
To paraphrase Hamm and Garciaparra’s reply, why not?
While Hamm interacted easily with a multi-cultural, revolving door of children, sharing the skills that won her Olympic and World Cup gold medals, her husband stood watch, wearing sunglasses and a perpetual smile. When he wasn’t busy tending the couple’s twin girls, Grace and Ava, Garciaparra occasionally interjected himself into the games.
“There are a lot of camps going on, a lot that do good things like keep kids being active, but this takes it to another level for sure,” Garciaparra said. “It's bringing these kids together with this message and trying to make the world better. I have a lot of free time to do things. Whenever you’re playing, you hear about things like this and go, ‘Man, I’d like to be a part of that and help any way I can.’ Now that I’m retired, I can.”
Hamm, 38, scored 158 goals in an 18-year career with the United States women’s national team.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that her first appearance at Seeds of Peace unfolded less than a month after the conclusion of a World Cup in South Africa, a nation once divided by racial conflict.
“Sports, like music, unlike anything else can bring people together. You’re out here seeing people with different ethnicities, different religious backgrounds, from different sides of the conflict, just really coming together,“ Hamm said. “They’re teammates and they’re laughing and joking and passing on the field, and that’s the step they’re taking off the field. Those are the lessons they’re going to take home.
“That’s the future of not just here at this camp but the world. Having these young, bright minds be part of it is so huge. I’m learning from them so much more than what I can teach them out here.”
Garciaparra’s agent, Arn Tellem, attended summer camp in Maine as a child and is a longtime friend of Tim Wilson, another of the camp’s directors.
Thanks to Tellem’s NBA connections, Seeds of Peace has welcomed a parade of professional basketball stars to its annual “Play for Peace” day. Free agent forward Brian Scalabrine, most recently with the Boston Celtics, appeared Thursday for the eighth consecutive year. Women’s basketball legend Teresa Edwards and NBA rookies Xavier Henry, Scottie Reynolds and Brian Zoubek joined Scalabrine.
But the double whammy of Hamm and Garciaparra was the first venture away from the basketball court, and probably a natural choice.
“Soccer is the world’s game,” Hamm said. “We just saw all the beauty it can bring in South Africa, how people unite around this great game.”
Hanna, a boy from Palestine, was less smitten with the athletes’ resumes than their willingness to identify with his dream of peace in the Middle East.
“It actually shows how much people support the cause I do. For famous people and people who have money, there’s a million other places they could be,” he said. “But they chose to be here with me, with us. It shows how much support we have from these people and how much they care about the things we do.”
The annual sports clinics are a welcome break at a camp that wields rigorous social and psychological components.
While half the group left the 10 a.m. opening assembly to spend time with the athletes, an equal number retreated to classrooms for their two-hour daily “dialogue” session. It is an often painful process at which the campers address the fear and prejudices they brought with them.
It was their turn to play in the afternoon.
“The dialogue process can get very emotionally exhausting. Those kids did not want to go to dialogue, but that’s what the camp is about. It’s brutal,” said Sid Goldman, 70, of Key West, Fla., a volunteer doctor at the camp. “In the beginning it’s about presenting their arguments. Hopefully at the end they’re listening. So the other activities encourage mutual cooperation.”
There are small delegations of campers from Maine and other parts of the United States.
“The main thing is to show that the enemy has a face,” said Kayla, 17, from Cleveland. “I’m Jewish, I was raised Jewish, went to a Jewish school my whole life. It was a shock to me as well, even being from the United States. The American delegation’s role at Seeds of Peace is a very complicated one. It’s a lot of understanding where you fit in.”
For at least a few hours Thursday, it was easy to blend.
As Smith bellowed names into the microphone, seemingly in ascending order of fame, the scene could have been confused with a rock concert or a religious festival.
“I actually learned that the other side is more than a name,” said Hadas, a 17-year-old girl from Israel. “They have personalities and families. It’s also taught me listening and understanding and an open mind.”
Standing in the background and hearing those words, with the athletes already far from the scene and walking toward their respective fields, Goldman smiled.
“Four thousand kids have come through here since 1993. Now the first kids are 28, 29, 30,” said the doctor. “They’re leaders in their respective countries. Once the parents get to a certain age, they’re beyond our reach. The idea is that these kids aren’t.”