Monday, September 24, 2012

Lofty Goals: Former pro athlete Tony Sanneh uses soccer to empower at-risk youth

The principle of karma dictates that good deeds beget more good deeds (we're paraphrasing centuries of philosophy here, but you get the idea). As wallets get thinner and demands on our time multiply, it’s easy to forget that doing good is more than just another thing to put on our to-do lists. It's an investment—with every hour we volunteer, dollar we contribute or compassionate act we commit, the seeds of karma are sown in our community. We dedicated April's issue to the people who are working to plant those seeds, so that you can consider joining them.  
At some point, we’ve all seen a film about a do-gooder sportsman helping inspire a team to greatness (Remember the Titans, anyone?). But how many of us are aware of the real-life Field of Dreams playing out in the Twin Cities at this moment?
The Sanneh Foundation, established in 2003 by St. Paul native and former soccer pro Tony Sanneh, works to unite diverse groups and communities, primarily focusing on youth, through a love of soccer. Forty-year-old Sanneh started the organization as his sports career was winding down; he finished his last season with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2009 following problematic injuries and moved back to St. Paul to concentrate on his non-profit work.  
The Sanneh Foundation takes a unique, “trickle-down” approach to its mission: adults mentor high-schoolers, who will in turn mentor grade-school kids. The non-profit also organizes sports equipment drives that provide the right tools for the game to kids who might not otherwise have access.
“We help [children] to grow and give them a sense of purpose and meaning in life—enabling them to be influential adults,” Sanneh says.
The bulk of the program’s students are aged six to 18 and are congregated from area schools (to which the Foundation reaches out, or that seek its help). A focus is placed on schools with diverse populations and a high number of students who qualify for  free and reduced-price lunches.
Two $1,000 college scholarships are available each year for older students, and scholarships are also available for Sanneh Foundation soccer camps, an experience that allows kids to get extensive training—which their parents otherwise might not be able to afford—in locations like the Virgin Islands. (Free camps are also available every summer in Minneapolis and St. Paul.)
Sanneh says his favorite moment so far with the Foundation came after working with Karen refugee children at Minneapolis’s Farview Park. The Sanneh Foundation provided the kids—whose families had fled the unstable political climate of southern Burma—with soccer equipment for their independent league.
“They won their league and they asked us to come to their trophy presentation,” Sanneh remembers. “They said they wouldn’t be able to play without our support.”
For now, the Sanneh Foundation’s scope is local, but Sanneh has hopes of serving many more schools and children.
 “I would like people to [know] we’re someone they can call when they need help, support or guidance,” says Sanneh, adding that as the scope of the Sanneh Foundation increases, it is likely that its approach to mentoring and sports training will indeed become more common.
“We would like to be a household name within the Twin Cities,” he says.
+Interested in getting involved with the Sanneh Foundation, or want more information about donations, camps and mentoring? Visit