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From Haiti to Minnesota: Sanneh Foundation brings in some of state’s best soccer players

Jameson Charles, top center, poses with the Haitian coaches that helped him get to Minnesota through the Sanneh Foundation. As a senior at Minneapolis Washburn High, Charles won the Gatorade Player of the Year award for Minnesota on June 8, 2020. (Courtesy of the Sanneh Foundation)

ST. PAUL -- Soccer is a cornerstone of the Sanneh Foundation’s humanitarian work in Haiti, but it’s mostly means to another end.

The St. Paul-based nonprofit uses the sport to help impoverished children eat healthy meals, receive an education and become leaders in a downtrodden area of Port-au-Prince. As they advance in the program, some kids have received opportunities to be foreign-exchange students in the U.S.

Three Haitian boys in the program have blossomed, and soccer has been a big reason why. They starred for Minnesota high school boys programs last season and plan to play NCAA Division I soccer as soon as this fall. But don’t conflate the foundation’s true objective being some sort of youth development academy.

Last week, Minneapolis Washburn senior midfielder Jameson Charles was named the Gatorade Player of the Year for Minnesota. His teammate, forward Darly Florvil won the state’s Mr. Soccer award for Class 2A, while Totino-Grace forward Steevenson LeMarre was a finalist for Mr. Soccer for Class 1A.

Charles has a scholarship to North Carolina, and LaMarre has signed with Creighton. Florvil plans to go to a prep school before enrolling at Northwestern in 2021.

“This last group has been the most successful,” said foundation founder Tony Sanneh, a former U.S. men’s national team member who played for the Minnesota Thunder, in MLS and in Germany.

The Sanneh Foundation’s efforts in Haiti started in 2010 after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated the Caribbean capital. The foundation now hosts regular groups of more than 300 children from the Cite Soleil neighborhood and seeks sponsorships to keep the kids in school while feeding them a meal six days a week and teaching them English.

Ten Haitians have come to Minnesota school as exchange student-athletes since 2014, including at North St. Paul, Edina, Orono and Holy Angles. The first huge success was Juan Louis of Minneapolis Washburn, the state’s 2016 Gatorade Player of the Year. After he won the award, he donated its $1,000 prize money to the Sanneh Foundation. He will be a senior forward for Drake this fall.

While these are shining examples, the program has overcome hurdles. Some students have struggled with culture shock, a language barrier and psychological changes. One or two previous situations for Haitian children have not worked out because of a lack of proper support with host families and attempts to adopt children that weren’t orphans, Sanneh said.

“I told families here, if we can’t control you trying to steal kids from Haiti, as some people have, in some sense, thinking they are saving them, then we just won’t bring them here,” Sanneh told the Pioneer Press this week. “It’s unfortunate. We had to decrease the number of kids that can probably come because some (hosts) have taken on their own to do what they felt like they needed to do to help people from that situation.”

The coronavirus pandemic has put this summer’s exchange program on hiatus. For children to be eligible to come to the U.S. in normal years, they need to have positive attitudes, attain academic success and have consistent attendance in the Sanneh Foundation’s program.

“They go back to the same situation that they came, but what we need to do is empower them and put them in a position to be successful there,” Sanneh said. “We have to be careful that we can’t take all of their best kids and their best talent and leave because then what do we leave it left with? What we want to do is cultivate and develop the best people there and give them educational opportunities here so they can go back there and lead.”

Charles, this year’s Gatorade Player of the Year, epitomizes the maturity and leadership Sanneh wants to see from the children. For three years, Charles has volunteered at Sanneh’s camps and been a part of their retreats to Alexandria, Minn.

Before Charles and Forvil’s junior year, Washburn had a team meeting about the group and individual challenges going into that season. What Charles shared on poverty and lack of family support opened teammates’ eyes.

“He shared a moment about when he was 8 years old in Haiti and the things he had to go through,” Washburn coach Aaron Percy said. “It really hit home for a lot of the guys how mature he had to become and what he had to deal with at an age that he shouldn’t have to deal with.”

While Haitians have helped Washburn succeed at the state level, Percy said the only reason these three players came into his program were the host families happened to live within the school’s geographic boundaries.

Charles is serious about his soccer career, but Sanneh, a World Cup veteran and repeat nominee for induction into the National Soccer Hall of Fame, said he doesn’t try to be a helicopter mentor to the promising players.

“I try to make it and want it to be more about them growing up and the other stuff will sort itself out,” Sanneh said. “If they (ask for) specific advice, I will give it. … They are kids, too, and it’s important that we don’t over-emphasize (soccer). What I’ve tried to do is coach the good things that we do in the community and hope that they continue to do that and share those values.”