Santa Maria Sun / Sports Lead
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 18
Brighter goalsFor two teens from Sierra Leone, soccer is the ticket to a land of opportunity
BY JEREMY THOMAS
Still recovering from a bloody, decade-long civil war, the country of Sierra Leone, on the western coast of Africa, is a long way from the tranquil Santa Ynez Valley.
For Dennis Cole and Sahid Conteh, two 14-year-olds who have scarcely traveled beyond their villages before, opportunities they only dreamed of are becoming reality through the sport of soccer.
The boys are preparing to attend the private Dunn School in Los Olivos on scholarships provided by the Craig Bellamy Foundation, a nonprofit that recently launched a soccer academy for youth in Sierra Leone, as well as the country’s first nationwide youth soccer league.
Established by Bellamy—a star player for the Welsh national team—the CBF recruits top soccer players throughout Sierra Leone and sends them to American schools with funds from private donors.
“The focus of the foundation is that we want to get these kids the most opportunities and best education possible so that they can in one way or another come back to Sierra Leone and reinvest in their country to make it better,” said Kelsey Sullivan, CBF’s development officer.
A former student at Dunn, Sullivan, 24, was instrumental in bringing Cole and Conteh to the United States. While at Dunn, she befriended several students from Ghana who attended the school through a charity program. In 2010, she ended up volunteering in Ghana and, through a friend, discovering the CBF. When she finished her work in Ghana, she returned to the United States, saved money, and went to Sierra Leone in August 2011.
Speaking with the Sun via Skype from the soccer academy’s 15-acre campus in Tombo village, she described Sierra Leone as a land of contrasts, with beautiful beaches and excellent food, yet set in a challenging socio-economic environment.
“Poverty is right there in your face,” Sullivan explained. “As soon as you get off the boat, you step into Freetown [the country’s capital]. It’s nothing like you would’ve seen before, but the people are incredibly friendly, really happy people. They just enjoy life and being here.”
In Sierra Leone, she explained, “football” is life. The streets are filled with children playing street football, wearing replica jerseys of their favorite players from the Sierra Leone and English Premier leagues. Her first week there, she found out firsthand how important the sport is to the country during a match against Egypt.
“It was nothing I’d ever seen before,” she recalled. “The amount of people that filled the stadium; [they were] absolutely crushed in like sardines. It was an incredible atmosphere to watch the games. People are so passionate about it.”
Much of what led to Sierra Leone’s civil war, Sullivan said, can be linked directly to the country’s poor education rates. Soccer can be “an incredible motivator” for education, she said, because of its competitive nature, and the attention the youth receive. Academy games regularly draw more than a thousand spectators, and in order for children to play on the team, they must attend school.
While many youth in Sierra Leone strive to become accountants, lawyers or doctors, they don’t have the support or opportunity, Sullivan explained. Through soccer, the academy is able to open up new, previously unimaginable doors.
The Craig Bellamy Foundation found Cole and Conteh during its annual nationwide scouting process. Initially recruited for their athletic talents, the boys also had to undergo academic tests and character assessments to show they could handle the responsibility.
“It’s a really demanding living situation,” Sullivan explained. “These kids are really well known. It’s a small country, and a lot of people know about the foundation, so it’s important they have the right kind of character.”
The boys stay at the academy in shared dorms, a collection of wood chalets. Cole and Conteh were too young to remember the war, and in school, they learned English. With thick Krio accents, the boys explained their love of soccer and their goals for their coming years in the United States.
“It’s exciting for me to go there and experience different things from my own culture here,” Cole said. “I think it will good for me to learn.”
A soccer player since before the age of 5, Cole wants to eventually become a professional. Here in the United States, he hopes to reunite with friends he met in Ghana, and is looking forward to playing for Dunn and his club team. Besides soccer, he’s eager to learn skills so he can ultimately return home and help rebuild his country.
“I want to get much education there mostly because in Sierra Leone here we don’t have much facilities for students to get more knowledge,” he explained. “I want to get educated so that when I’m ready to come back to Sierra Leone, I can develop things there.”
Likewise, Conteh wants to turn pro someday, but is also interested in becoming a lawyer. He’s never traveled anywhere outside of Sierra Leone before.
“Life is not too bad for me here because I enjoy living at the academy,” Conteh said. “They are giving us good food, shelter, and a good education, but I think now that I’m going to the States, there will be more opportunity and more experience for us.”
Conteh said above all else, he’s excited to meet new people and tell them all about his life back home.
“I want the people out there to know where I’m from,” Conteh said. “We’ve been given this opportunity, not like in Sierra Leone, the place where we come from. Those are things I want people to know about me.”
Both Cole and Conteh received four-year scholarships to Dunn, where they’ll follow in the footsteps of Ghanan soccer players like King Gyan and Micheal Tetteh, who carried Dunn to the CIF championship in 2006 and are both currently playing professionally.
If all goes according to plan, the boys will arrive in the United States on Aug. 25, moving in with Sullivan in her home in Buellton. In the meantime, she’ll teach them more about American culture and customs. They’ll be transitioning from living in a tiny wooden house, where they sometimes lack running water and have only enough electricity to last a few hours a day, to a place where all their necessities are readily available.
While the boys might be overwhelmed by the newfound accessibility, Sullivan said, they can’t wait to get started.
“I think this is an unbelievable opportunity for these kids to come,” Sullivan said. “I’m really proud of them for the work that they’ve done to get to this point. It’s going to be an exciting couple of years we’ve got ahead of us, and hopefully these first two will open the doors for a lot more boys to come over.”
Staff Writer Jeremy Thomas likes open doors. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.