CameroonFDP Using Soccer to Improve Young Africans’ Lives
Sep 01, 2017 08:29AM
By Shelly Tower Rushe
When Pittsburgh resident Justin Forzano visited Cameroon, Africa in 2006, he was moved by the hospitality and hope of the citizens he met, despite the fact that they faced many overwhelming challenges. Four years after his initial visit, Forzano and Peter Ngwane created CameroonFDP (Football to Develop People) with the goal of using soccer to improve the lives of young people in the country.
Forzano was originally in the region as a student at the University of Dayton. While participating in a program called ETHOS, a service-learning program through the university’s engineering department, he worked with a Cameroonian village to design a water system. The mornings were spent working on the waterline and the afternoons were spent playing soccer with the villagers.
“Every day, no matter how tired people were, we always played soccer,” he said.
While the people Forzano met were optimistic, the country as a whole is facing glum realities. Roughly the size of California, 62 percent of Cameroon’s population is under age 24 with a life expectancy of only 55. Poverty, AIDS, high maternal mortality, food insecurity, and high rates of unemployment are common.
Forzano’s support started with soccer. He donated a set of jerseys to the players and was moved by the care that they took with the equipment, washing it and storing it at their chief’s home between matches. “I was really inspired by the spirit and resilience of the people I met. There was an overwhelming sense of community,” he explained.
When he learned more about the hardships the region faced, he knew he had to expand the scope of his assistance. “Cameroon ranks in the bottom 15 percent of the United Nations' human development index. Health, education, and security are often compromised. Thirty percent of the population is unemployed,” he said. “Despite all of this, it's a relatively safe country with steady economic growth, a history of stability and quality football.”
Back in Pittsburgh, Forzano was attending the University of Pittsburgh and managing an indoor sports center where he met Peter Johnson, whose children were playing soccer at the facility. Johnson had heard of the organization during an equipment and clothing drive that Forzano held, and he soon became one of the organization’s board members.
“He’s so humble,” said Johnson of Forzano. “As I was talking to him, I realized that it’s so much more than just collecting clothing. It’s giving the kids in Cameroon a mentor.
“They create soccer leagues and teams and then integrate education, life skills, mentorship, and community engagement into every practice and match,” he continued. “We have so many things we take for granted. They have no afterschool activities, no shoes, no uniforms, sometimes no ball.”
Each season, the group focuses on a different social impact goal, be it gender equality or healthy lifestyles. The program is already making a tremendous impact on the future of its participants, giving kids the chance to travel to regional tournaments which, for some, is the first opportunity they’ve had to leave home.
It’s also ensuring that they stay in school. According to United Nations UNESCO statistics, less than 80 percent of Cameroonians under age 24 have the equivalent of a high school diploma. Of first year participants in CameroonFDP, 92 percent have graduated or are still in school.
“We educate youth on important health topics and life skills and encourage them to stay in school and make good decisions that can help them have a more secure and brighter future,” said Forzano.
In addition to gently used equipment donations from local clubs and teams, the organization is supported through the contributions of individuals and small businesses in the Pittsburgh region. Contributions support the organization’s eight staff members in Africa, as well as provide funds to train coaches to be educators and mentors, ship much-needed equipment, and provide other operational and programming costs to support educational soccer leagues in multiple regions.
To help raise these funds and spread the word about CameroonFDP, the organization is hosting their seventh annual Taste of Africa event next month. The event will feature authentic cuisine prepared by the women of the Cameroon community of Pittsburgh, beverages from local breweries, African music, a silent auction, and a live painting demonstration where an artist will paint throughout the event and then auction off the piece at the end.
The event is scheduled for October 14th at the Teamsters Temple in Lawrenceville. A VIP event will begin at 6 p.m. and includes a meet-and-greet with Forzano and a long-time participant from Cameroon who is now living in Pittsburgh, as well as specialty drinks and African street food. General admission begins at 7 p.m.
VIP tickets are $75, general admission is $55, children ages 8-18 are $25, and children under 7 are free. To purchase tickets, make a donation, or read more about the event or the organization’s mission, visit www.CameroonFDP.org.