The Pope, and the power of play

September 15, 2016 | GET MORE : Community

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The Geis family swapped their dining room table for a ping-pong table, and ended up with a trip to the Vatican as a result.

Ominous clouds blanketed the skies, thunder clapped and a torrential downpour hailed down on St. Peter's Square on what had just minutes before been a sunny, 75-degree morning at the Vatican. 15-year-old Charlie Geis peered through the rain and locked eyes with Pope Francis.

"Oh. My. Gosh. I can't believe this is happening. From a summer internship in Chicago to sitting feet away from the Pope in Rome," said Charlie.

Let's rewind a few years to 2013 in suburban Chicago… Charlie and his two brothers were becoming increasingly consumed with playing games on their phones and tablets. To break this trend their dad, Doug Geis, bought a ping-pong table for the basement.

"I thought about a pool table as well, but it came down to ping-pong being so active and social in nature," said Doug, who works for U.S. Bank in Chicago. "It felt like a perfect fit for our family."

And it was. The table was a hit with the boys, who were spending hours-on-end volleying back and forth. Nearly immediately the middle Geis brother, William, asked for a better paddle for his birthday to gain an edge on his brothers and dad.

Doug took to Google for research and stumbled upon Killerspin, one of the world’s leading table tennis manufacturers. He called the company for advice, and they invited him down to their headquarters located on the 10th floor of a high-rise office building downtown Chicago.

"So I walk in, and I'm greeted with a 'This is the guy who called!' and tossed a Killerspin tee shirt," said Doug. He was given a tour of the Killerspin offices, picked out his gift for William with help from a "paddle guru," took an impromptu lesson from world-champion table tennis player Biba Golic and was introduced to Killerspin CEO and local entrepreneur Robert Blackwell, Jr.

Enamored with and inspired by the Geis family’s transformation, Blackwell pitched Doug with a wild idea: trading his living room table for a ping-pong table. He offered to give the family a professional-grade table and equipment in exchange for the opportunity to come out and shoot a video with the family for social media.

"We said 'Yes.' This was a chance to double down on our experiment to bring our family together through the power of play," said Doug.

A week later, their living room table was gone and a Killerspin Revolution table had become the centerpiece. It turned out to do much more than bring their family together; it was a hit in the neighborhood, with kids and adults alike stopping by to hang out and tip-toe around their mantle to strike a volley. With Killerspin’s help, they've even thrown block parties with 100-plus neighbors picking up paddles.   

However, it's always been about more than table tennis for Charlie. Blackwell, of Killerspin, took Charlie under his wing, offering him a summer internship at Killerspin each of the past three summers – when Charlie has been 13, 14 and now 15 years old. On one particular morning, he even sat down with his leadership team and told them he was naming Charlie the CEO for the day.

"Charlie is a classy and very intelligent young man who we couldn't be prouder of," said Blackwell. "We feel honored that Charlie is so connected to us. It's unusual that a teenager has such great vision, energy and understanding. We look forward to him being a part of the Killerspin family for years to come."

Now, let's fast forward back to this summer at the Vatican… Earlier this year, Blackwell landed a meeting with Pope Francis to pitch an idea for the World UnPlugNPlay Festival, an event that would bring people from all around the world together to build human connections through the power of play. Blackwell was inspired by comments the Pope had recently made about how the increasing digitization of the world can have a negative impact on human relationships. The pitch hit, and the planning began.

Blackwell, who also serves on U.S. Bank’s local advisory board, reached out to the bank about sponsoring the event, which would include two tickets for executives to attend and two Killerspin tables with equipment. The bank quickly decided to give the tickets to Doug and Charlie and to donate the tables to nonprofits in Chicago and its headquarters market, Minneapolis.

"We were excited to support the event and to send Doug and Charlie to attend. We recently launched our new corporate social responsibility platform, Community Possible, which focuses our community investments on Work, Home and Play," said Reba Dominski, head of corporate social responsibility at U.S. Bank. "We believe that people and communities are stronger when they are connected through the arts, recreation and play. What better representative for this concept than the family who traded their living room for a ping-pong court?"

On Friday, Aug. 26, Doug and Charlie hopped on a plane headed to Rome. So did 50 or so others from around the world who’d also connected with Blackwell and Killerspin. The diverse group included a theatre house producer from Mexico City, a retired IBM executive and the family of man whose dying wish had been to meet the Pope.

In the spirit of the festival, Charlie and Doug put down their devices while in Rome, making a pact to not talk about "back home" (like the first week of school Charlie would have to make up) and to not put off anything for "tomorrow" that they could do "today." They checked in to their Airbnb in the city on Saturday, Aug.27, and in the next few days walked miles upon miles seeing the Sistine Chapel, the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, and more. Having just studied Roman history in ninth grade, Charlie was Doug's tour guide.

Then, on Wednesday, Aug. 31 came the rain-soaked event at St. Peter’s Square. Charlie, Doug and the rest of the Killerspin group were special guests with behind-the-scenes seats to Pope Francis’ weekly speech and prayer to thousands of people who make the pilgrimage from across the world. Although the weather cut the event short that day, through an ambassador Charlie was able to deliver a custom ping-pong paddle and a letter to Pope Francis, along with a letter from U.S. Bank's CEO Richard Davis.

Following the event, the group left the Vatican for nearby vacation island Sardinia for a few days centered on – you guessed it – table tennis. By connecting through play, Charlie was able to build relationships and experience the cultures of the group.

"We had the time of our lives meeting people from all walks of life, connecting through the power of play," said Doug. "And Charlie, he was the life of the party. I couldn’t be a prouder dad right now."

Pat Swanson is a member of U.S. Bank's corporate communications team.