Motivational Kick: St. Paul's Sanneh Foundation Brings Soccer to Haitian Kids
How Tony Sanneh’s Haitian Initiative soccer program changes lives—on and off the field
photo by ryan taylor
Tony Sanneh first walked the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in February 2010—four weeks after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake ravaged the capital.
While he and several of his Los Angeles Galaxy teammates passed out soap and soccer balls and ran clinics for kids whose schools were shut down, Sanneh saw buildings reduced to rubble. He saw dead bodies everywhere. He saw pain and helplessness in the children’s eyes. And he saw an opportunity to do more with his Sanneh Foundation. Founded in 2003 in his hometown of St. Paul, the organization’s mission is to empower children, improve lives, and unite communities.
Within the next year, he returned twice on his own to run more clinics and pass out equipment. Once he had developed credibility, he told his hosts, “Take me somewhere where people need help the most.”
On his second visit, they drove him to the edge of Cité Soleil, a three-square-mile Port-au-Prince neighborhood of nearly 400,000 people living without electricity or running water. Raw sewage ran through the gutters, police had surrendered to the gangs, unemployment was the norm, and malnourished children faced high risk of AIDS/HIV. The United Nations had designated Cité Soleil a Red Zone, unsafe for anyone to visit. “You can’t go in unless you know someone,” his hosts said.
They waited for two men on motorcycles, who escorted them to a gravel soccer field surrounded by a concrete wall and locked behind a chain-link gate (so people wouldn’t use it as a public restroom, his hosts explained). They asked Sanneh if he could build them a proper field. “Let’s start a program,” he responded.
Around that field he built the Haitian Initiative, a collaboration of partners including the U.S. Embassy, the Haitian National Police, the Scouts of Haiti, and the Haitian Ministry of Youth and Sport. The program uses soccer to incent kids to stay in school and teach them soccer skills that can translate to life, such as discipline, motivation, and teamwork. Last year, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) recognized the Haitian Initiative as one of only three U.S. nonprofits to meet effectiveness standards set by FIFA Football for Hope, a global initiative launched in 2005 that supports social projects that improve the lives of youth through soccer.
Sanneh's Haitian Initiative in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, rewards passing grades and school attendance with soccer training and hot meals
photo courtesy the sanneh foundation
If the kids stay in school and make passing grades, for three hours afterward, they receive soccer instruction from trained coaches and a hot meal Monday through Saturday. For the vast majority of the 280 kids ages 6 to 17 in the program, that vitamin-fortified meal courtesy of Feed My Starving Children is the only one they’ll eat all day.
Half a block away from the field, the kids eat in a building called simply “the feeding center,” rented from a religious order, where they also receive two hours of English tutoring weekly.
The number of kids has grown steadily to its current level, with nearly 100 more on the waiting list. The Sanneh Foundation is working to establish the Haitian Initiative as an independent 501c3 by the end of 2018, but it will remain part of the foundation in the meantime.
Sanneh, who played on the U.S. National Team from 1997 to 2005 and retired from professional soccer in 2010, has instilled hope with the Haitian Initiative. When he walks the streets of Cité Soleil today, residents call out to him. Children rush forward to trade high-fives. Mothers stop to hug him.
On a sultry July afternoon in 2017, Sanneh sits in the shade at the National Sports Center in Blaine, in white Nike cleats, black athletic shorts, and a green Sanneh Foundation T-shirt darkened with sweat. He has just finished running two hour-long clinics under full sun in the 91-degree heat. But he patiently answers questions and tells stories. It’s evident he is skilled at navigating different settings and working with various types of people.
The Sanneh Foundation offers free summer soccer clinics across the Twin Cities metro area for youth ages 5-12; more at thesannehfoundation.org/programs/camps
photo by uzoma obasi
“He’s amazing with kids,” says Maree Hampton, a program evaluation consultant who started working with the Sanneh Foundation after the earthquake in Haiti. She has observed Sanneh at work in Haiti twice, once to write an evaluation of a training program for coaches. “He has this way about him. He’s approachable, warm, has a sense of humor. He’s attuned to the culture. He has earned their respect.”
Sanneh has also won the respect of the U.S. State Department, which designated his program as part of its International Sports Programming Initiative, one of only nine worldwide. The summer of 2012, he brought a U14 [age 14 and under] team of 18 boys from the Haitian Initiative to compete at the Schwan’s USA Cup, an annual international youth tournament in Blaine, as part of a cultural exchange and to raise awareness here for his cause in Haiti.
It went so well that he decided to do it again the following year—and that’s when things took an unexpected turn.
When the host families heard about the danger and impoverishment these boys endured, they were moved. The boys exhibited resiliency directly proportional to their hardship, and these families wondered what they could do if given better chances.
They started talking among themselves, making arrangements. Less than two months later, one boy had returned to live with a family in southwest Minneapolis. Then another. And another. Within a couple of years, seven were living in the Twin Cities metro area, some adopted by their former host families, others under their guardianship. The host parents said they couldn’t bear the thought of sending the boys back to extreme poverty. But Sanneh saw these actions as a threat to his program.
Juan Louis was one of the early ones. His father, once a professional soccer player in Haiti, had abandoned the family. His mother raised Juan and his younger brother, subsisting day to day on the second floor of government housing, a cinder-block duplex with a tin roof and an outhouse in back. Juan loved soccer and played briefly for a club team, but his mother made him quit because it was too dangerous—gang members had kidnapped kids off the practice field. So, he played pickup in the street, and the intense matches with older, more-talented kids sharpened his game. When she heard about Sanneh’s Haitian Initiative in 2013, she enrolled her son. He came to Minnesota to play in the Schwan’s USA Cup that summer.
From left: Sanneh and Haitian Initiative participant Juan Louis
photo courtesy the sanneh foundation
When he went back to Haiti, Louis stayed for a time with MacKenzie François, then one of the team managers and instructors for the Haitian Initiative, so he could be closer to the program and for safety. He feared the jealousy of others who knew he had gone to America. His mother gave her then-15-year-old son her blessing to live with another family in the United States.
“In Haiti, there are no opportunities, nothing,” Louis says in his quiet, soft-spoken manner. He has just finished helping Sanneh conduct one of the clinics. “Here there are a lot of opportunities. If you work for them, you can achieve.”
He immediately proved himself ready and willing to adapt to his new home when he arrived on January 23, 2014. He had never seen snow. Having heard about snow angels on the drive from the airport with his new family, Louis got out of the car at their home in southwest Minneapolis and plopped in the snow to make an angel.
Learning English took a little longer, but Louis applied himself—first that spring semester at Wellstone International High School then for three years at Washburn High School, where he achieved a 3.65 GPA. Louis excelled on the soccer pitch with his distinctive, creative style developed in Haiti’s streets. As a senior in the fall of 2016, he was voted Mr. Soccer, Minnesota’s best soccer player, by the Minnesota High School Soccer Coaches Association and named to the high school All-American team. He also earned a scholarship to play Division-I soccer at Drake University.
Louis would welcome the chance to play pro soccer in the MLS, but he calls that “Plan B.” His priority is to get an education, and his primary ambition is to “do something in business.” He recognizes that an injury could derail a soccer dream, but that no one can take away a college degree. “I’m happiest to have the opportunity to go to college and have a degree that will help me later,” he says.
To date, Juan Louis has been the most successful of the Haitians who have moved to Minnesota through Sanneh’s program. Another, Marc-Arthur Shapiro, graduated from the Academy of Holy Angels and is playing D-III soccer at Luther College. Several of the other younger boys are also thriving in the classroom and on the pitch, but the success has not been absolute. One host family sent the two boys who had lived with them for four years back to Haiti, including Ata Claremond, who had scored 38 goals for North St. Paul High as a junior and been named the 2016 Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year.
Offering kids from an impoverished country stability, safety, and an education in the U.S. seems like a good thing, but it’s not always that simple. Sanneh initially opposed the plans for Minnesota families to relocate kids from his Haitian Initiative to their homes, and questioned the motivations of some of the parents and the kids.
When he shared his concerns with them, he felt the parents did not seriously consider them. Some interpreted his resistance as megalomania. That hurt him. “Did they think I didn’t have the kids’ best interests in mind?” he says. “I started the program.”
Basically, they clashed over how best to channel their compassion. The parents wanted to provide a home to the individual boys they had come to care about. Sanneh took the longer view, wanting to help all of the children in his program, not just a select few.
“If we teach them the only way to achieve is to get out of here and then take the best and the brightest, what are we doing to those left behind?” he says. “Then the whole program becomes about coming to America. That’s not what we want. We want to empower them, educate them. Ninety percent of them are going to live in Haiti the rest of their lives. We want them to find out how they can do that successfully and support one another. It doesn’t help the country if they leave; it helps if they stay.”
And yet. There are three more boys who came the summer of 2017, to stay in Minnesota at least long enough to graduate from high school, shepherded by Sanneh. Their process is different, he claims. They came for three previous visits, each a little longer in duration, and were told they had to get good grades and work hard in Haiti to be rewarded with coming again to the States. “We want to bring kids here in a systematic way, instead of have them come as free agents,” he says. “These three were prepared to come, and they earned it.”
photo courtesy the sanneh foundation
The three he selected have proven themselves to be high caliber. Jameson Charles is one of them. Currently junior at Washburn High School in Minneapolis, he’s a young man who believes in God, hard work, and education. “School is your passport,” he says in his characteristic earnestness. “It lets you go everywhere if you have a good education.”
He likes math and science, and his ambition is to become an accountant if not a professional soccer player. He took summer school classes even though he didn’t need to simply because he wanted to keep learning. His time at the Haitian Initiative shaped his priorities. “In Haiti, I was thinking, ‘school first, then soccer,’ because without school, there is no soccer,” he says.
Charles is as sweet a kid as you’ll ever meet. When some other players on his club team were complaining about a coach, Charles didn’t understand. He believed the man was coaching because he loved the kids. “If someone takes the time to teach you, that’s the greatest gift you can get,” he told his host father, Erik Heinemann. The first time an official in the U.S. whistled him for a foul, Charles did not understand what the official was saying in English, but he hugged him in appreciation for the attention.
Charles had pretty much been raising himself and his younger brother in Cité Soleil after their mother died from an untreated infection when Charles was just 7 years old. His father was busy with a new wife and foraging for income. He did not want his son playing soccer because it was too dangerous, but Charles had fallen in love with the game and won him over when he had the chance to be in the Haitian Initiative program, which eventually led to him coming to the United States on a five-year student visa. “Now he’s proud of me,” Charles says. “He’s happy for me to have the opportunity here.”
Juan Louis returned to Haiti the spring of 2017 for the first time in more than three years. He went with a group on an “impact trip,” organized by the Sanneh Foundation. The trips are part cultural exchange and part showcase of the Haitian Initiative. They occur multiple times each year. “It’s a pretty special opportunity for the Haitian youth to connect with the Minnesota youth,” says Hampton, who went on the trip with her 18-year-old son Torsten, a former player for Minneapolis United Soccer Club.
It was special for Louis, too, to see his family again. His mother hugged him hard. His younger brother cried. He knew his mother missed him and his younger brother would like to have a similar opportunity. But it was most emotional for him that his father showed up at the feeding center and stayed two hours to watch Louis practice. He had never watched his son play soccer. “He thinks I’m good now,” Louis says and smiles.
Creating Soccer Opportunities for Girls
photo courtesy the sanneh foundation
Tony Sanneh had to overcome cultural barriers to increase chances for girls to play soccer in Haiti. The program managers, imbued with the cultural belief that girls should be helping their mothers do chores at home and not playing sports, resisted. So Sanneh shut down the program and told them, “We’ll reopen once the girls practice 10 days in a row.”
His managers acquiesced, and today about 40 percent of the children enrolled in the Haitian Initiative program are girls. At the younger levels, the split between boys and girls is 50-50. “The philosophy of our program is to empower everyone and provide equal opportunities,” Sanneh says. “One of the ways Haiti can improve is by maximizing resources, which means all of their people.”
The girls in the program told Sanneh employee Maree Hampton on her last visit, “Soccer is good health and helps me with my education.” And, “Soccer is important, more than life.” And, “Soccer is important to me because it allows me to grow better. When you are a soccer player, your future is in your hands.”
More information on the Sanneh Foundation.