Uniting cultures through soccer: Huskies have life-changing experience in Rwanda

“I expected it to be us giving to them, based on what I know about the poverty that they live in and seeing the poverty that they live in, but oftentimes it felt very different than that.”

Those are the sentiments of Northern Illinois University women’s soccer junior Abby Gregg in recalling a trip made by members of the Huskie men’s and women’s soccer teams to Rwanda this past spring.

“We were being given food, we were given hospitality,” Gregg went on to explain. “Just overall incredibly generous people and I didn’t expect that going in.”

Just as the game of soccer helped unite people from around the world at the FIFA World Cup in Russia earlier this summer, the game also helped bring together the unlikely pairing of NIU student-athletes with members of the Kazo community in Rwanda.

Shortly after the conclusion of the spring semester, three student-athletes from the Huskie men’s soccer team, Adrian Coardos, Jan Maertins and Max Voss, along with six from the NIU women’s soccer team, Kelsey Chope, Taylor Fuderer, Gregg, Delaney Loprieno, Grace Louis and Natalie Pena travelled to the East African nation with Humanity for Children as part of the Turanyi Project.

The message of the trip, known as the Turanyi (good neighbor) Project, was fairly simple, using the game of soccer as a tool to keep kids in school while developing self-discipline, non-violent ways of handling conflict and HIV/AIDS prevention strategies.

“The main goal of this trip was to educate the Rwandan youth about the importance of staying in school and [getting] a good education,” explained Voss, a senior from Herten, Germany. “In order to motivate the kids to stay in school, we wanted to use soccer as a bridge. We had some soccer clinics with kids where we showed them some skills, but more importantly, educated them about the importance of being a respectful and good teammate.”

Throughout the 2017-18 school year, the Huskies led the community-wide initiative to collect cleats, shin guards, soccer balls and matching uniforms to deliver on their journey to Rwanda. The NIU contingent, which also included men’s soccer assistant coach Jack Mathis and Dr. Bob Hansen, the President of the Board of Directors for Humanity for Children, spent about a week in the East African country.

Along with delivering soccer equipment and running clinics, the group also spent time with the Rwandan people, going to schools and getting a glimpse into Rwandan life and culture. Immediately from their arrival, the group’s trip was a major event for the local people.

“Word travels fast in these villages, so once we were on site, everyone knew and everyone from the village would come out,” recalls Mathis.

Voss echoed those sentiments from a trip to a classroom he made with Gregg and Loprieno.

“We went into this first-grade classroom where we introduced ourselves and asked the kids some questions,” Voss said. “Because of the young age of these students, you could tell that they were very shy and didn’t dare to ask any questions; however, instead of asking a question, one small boy said that he was so happy and excited that we visited his school that day because it was his first time to see and meet white people. This just indicates how special it was for them, as well as for us, to meet each other. This was a situation that I‘ll remember for the rest of my life.”

Despite their numerous cultural differences, the Huskie student-athletes and the Kazo people, in particular, the members of the Kazo Futbol Academy, shared a bond through the game of soccer. Mathis smiled when recalling one of the clinics, which drew upwards of 200 local children, where he stepped back to take in the sight of the Huskies leading the local Rwandan children through various soccer drills.

“Seeing how involved (the NIU student-athletes) were in it and how much joy they were getting from it, as well as the (local) kids, and seeing them take on leadership roles was great,” said Mathis.

While leadership may have been one of the qualities that was manifested from the clinics, another, according to Gregg, was perhaps even simpler.

“We got to use something that we love so much, like soccer, we got to share that with people who have never left their tiny village,” Gregg explained. “A legacy that we got to leave behind with them is that helping others and taking the time to share yourself and share your time, with others is so important. Yes, we brought gear and helped out with equipment, but I think that the biggest thing that we gave to them was our time. I think that is the legacy that we can leave behind, to understand the importance of fellowship with others, especially people who are very different from you, because we can learn so much from each other.”

The Huskies traveled to Africa to make a positive difference in the lives of Rwandans through soccer, using the game to promote health and education. The Kazo Futbol Academy will get plenty of use out of the soccer balls, uniforms, cleats and shin guards brought to them by the Huskies, but long after those balls have gone flat, the cleats have worn out and the uniforms are no longer in use, it will be the lasting memories of two cultures coming together that will endure, a sentiment probably best summed up by Mathis.

“For the kids, the family members, the Kazo Futbol Academy and the villages, I think they will remember us for the rest of their lives and surely we remember them as well.”

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