St. Paul-based youth soccer foundation chosen for exchange with Haiti

A St. Paul-based youth soccer foundation has been selected to lead a two-year athletic exchange between Minnesota and Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

The Sanneh Foundation is one of 10 organizations across the world that will run international exchanges on behalf of the U.S. Department of State’s SportsUnited program. A $250,000 federal grant will cover about a third of the cost of the exchange.

Sanneh will work with 108 young people between the ages of 13 and 17 from the two countries over the course of two summers, with a general focus on non-elite players.

About 40 young people from Port-au-Prince will come to Minnesota in 2016 and 2017.

Tony Sanneh established a professional relationship with Haitian organizations after an earthquake devastated that nation’s capital in 2010.

Sanneh, then a professional player with the Los Angeles Galaxy, helped launch a year-round soccer program that works with 240 boys and girls and offers after-school play and a free meal six days a week.

“For a lot of the kids, it’s the only meal that they’ll likely get in a day,” said Tod Herskovitz, a spokesman for the foundation.

Sanneh, an official sports envoy for U.S. Department of State since 2010, has promoted soccer as a community-building tool in Cyprus, Pakistan, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Bolivia and Ethiopia.

In Haiti, “it really grew, because there was a large group of volunteers locally that wanted us to build a program, and there was a large need,” Sanneh said. “We made such strong connections. We don’t believe in ‘shock and awe.’ We wanted to build something that was going to be sustainable and lasting.”

The Sanneh Foundation also plans to train 360 community coaches in Haiti through workshops beginning in January, and 10 coaches will come to Minnesota in July for certification through the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association.

The Haitian coaches will help prepare 40 Haitian and Minnesota youth for the Schwan’s USA Cup International Youth Soccer Tournament in Blaine in 2016, and another 40 in 2017.

Half of the young people will be female, and four of the 10 coaches coming to Minnesota will be members of the Haitian National Police’s gender-based violence unit.

Sanneh is partnering with Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who will lead workshops on preventing gender-based violence with the youth and officers. Additional partners include the National Soccer Association of America, as well as Sanneh’s non-profit partner in Haiti, the Haitian Initiative.

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs grants are intended to promote international understanding and female empowerment for youth and community coaches in both countries.

The Sanneh Foundation worked with the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince last year for a week-long soccer project connecting 640 youth with the Haitian National Police’s gender-based violence unit.

In addition to soccer, the effort focused on preventing violence against women and girls. Haiti in 2005 established its first modern laws against rape, which was previously classified as a crime against public morals, less serious than assault.

Sanneh started the foundation in 2003 following his experience playing for the U.S. men’s team at the World Cup in South Korea and Japan.

In St. Paul, the foundation runs the Conway Community Center on St. Paul’s East Side, more than 40 free week-long summer day camps, and year-round tutoring and mentoring programs at 10 St. Paul high schools.

“We put two or three mentors in all of the high schools, and they’re there from the opening bell at 7 a.m. to 4 o’clock,” Herskovitz said.

Several high school students from Port-au-Prince who visited Minnesota through a previous exchange in the summer of 2013 have stuck around.

The students, who live with host families, have enrolled in high schools in Minneapolis, Edina and North St. Paul and continue to be active in soccer.

The Sanneh Foundation is recruiting Minnesota high school students at all levels of soccer ability who would like to travel to Haiti during spring break in March or April. Costs do apply. For more information, visit the foundation’s website at


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