A group wearing tracksuits and carting 15 large hockey-equipment bags down the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport terminal is quite a common sight. But this particular story is not common at all. In this case, this group was not off to defend gold or to play in a football tournament, they were set out to bring some hope to children through the power of the beautiful game—over 340 kg of football gear, to be precise.
Tony Sanneh was a regular in Bruce Arena’s defence for the USA during their quarter-final run at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™. Sanneh started the foundation a year after that World Cup, while still a professional. In 2010, after retiring from the game, he devoted all of his time to the organisation, becoming the president and CEO. It was also in 2010 when the Haitian Initiative was birthed after Sanneh witnessed the destruction a 7.0 earthquake left in the country.
“It’s about opportunity and hope,” said Sanneh, speaking with FIFA.com about his foundation’s work in the Caribbean. “If I was going to do something, how do I make it sustainable? We basically said, ‘If we can produce something in the most difficult spot, it can be replicated everywhere’.”
The Sanneh Foundation established a year-round program in Cite Soleil, generally regarded as the poorest slum in the country and one of the poorest slums in the Western Hemisphere, to bring hope to children through football. The programs at Cite Soleil have flourished in the past few years, with children receiving education on and off the pitch, training six days-a-week, being fed each day and being taught English once a week. The foundation’s progress is even more encouraging considering the context in which Sanneh first launched the program in the wake of the devastating earthquake.
“Everything was closed down for six months,” he said. “There was no school, dead bodies everywhere. Everything was a ten-foot pile of rubble.” Sanneh was visiting Haiti with Los Angeles Galaxy at the time on a short-term trip, but he was determined to do what he could to make a long-term impact. While great strides have been made with the foundation, Sanneh has a vision to give the people of Cite Soleil something to be even more proud of, including a community centre and a new pitch.
The quote at the beginning of the article came from a caption included in one of the Dark Clouds Silver Lining’s video testimonials from their most recent trip to Haiti, while they were serving the Cite Soleil community and delivering brand new soccer equipment to the children there. The group serves as a reminder that a supporters’ group can be much more than a gathering of fans of a particular team singing and chanting on a Saturday afternoon.
“They’re real, and it’s about what this life should be about,” said Sanneh. “Everyone should look to see how we can make the world a better place. When you’re a supporters’ group, you really support the community, right? It’s not just about wins or losses or how many fans they get. It’s about what they do as an organisation. It’s a way of life.”
The Sanneh Foundation’s work in Haiti uses football as a means to give the people of Cite Soleil hope and confidence.
“What was cool was to see the guys (Dark Clouds Silver Lining members) outside their comfort zone,” said Sanneh. “The kids had the understanding that the guys were there to support them, so that was really special. To see adults get emotional about the opportunity to help others and really come to fruition and say, ‘This is an epiphany moment and validation for everything we do. This is why we do it’. That made us feel good that we helped them reach that pinnacle.
“We saw people go so far outside their comfort zone, doing things they never would have imagined. Whether it was driving, teaching English, attempting to play soccer, making friends with other people, they were awesome to be around. They were so relentless in their effort. No matter how tired they were or how dead, if you mentioned something that needed to be done, they would say, ‘We can do it, what do you need?’ That was really special.
“It’s real people doing real things. No matter how much money you have, you still need people to carry out these actions. People power is huge.”
What the Sanneh Foundation and groups like Dark Clouds Silver Lining are doing goes beyond bringing new soccer equipment to children.
“You’re nothing without the respect for yourself,” said Sanneh. “The game has the ability to bring people together and let us celebrate our differences. From that point of view, it brings self-confidence to individuals because it brings self-respect naturally. Pride and self-worth and awareness are huge, unmeasured things that make people tick.”
While on the surface, it is The Sanneh Foundation doing the teaching and helping give opportunities, Sanneh himself has learnt a vast amount from the people of Cite Soleil.
“I’ve learned about hope, and what’s important,” he said. “I’ve learned to persevere and I’ve learned the value of what I have. I’ve learned to be thankful. I’ve learned all kids deserve the opportunity.”
This article is part of FIFA.com's ongoing series highlighting NGOs that are part of Football for Hope, FIFA’s global initiative to help improve the lives of young people through football.