“When you’re an athlete, people just do things for you, and you come to expect that,” said a former professional soccer player.
Yet, for Tony Sanneh, throughout his career in soccer and especially in the years after he left the sport, he has proved that it can also work the opposite way: athletes can do things for others as well.
Tony Sanneh visited Saint Mary’s University to talk to students about his non-profit organization and give advice on how to serve others in need, as a part of a leadership program organized by Saint Mary’s Jamison Rusthoven.
Sanneh, a starter for the United States in the 2002 FIFA World Cup and a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, said he found his passion helping others after his retirement from soccer.
When Sanneh was playing his final year of professional soccer with the Los Angeles Galaxy, he knew he couldn’t play soccer forever. When an opportunity arose for him to go to Haiti to help with hurricane relief, he quickly accepted.
The weeks in Haiti provided Sanneh with the motivation and inspiration he used to find ways to give back to others. He was approached by two people with two great ideas: a young man who wanted a backing for a soccer and social change program and a young woman who wanted to fund an after school soccer program.
With their ideas and help, Sanneh founded The Sanneh Foundation in 2003. The organization utilizes the Conway Community Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, to offer youth a safe and inclusive place to spend time outside of school. Since its founding, The Sanneh Foundation has funded 85 free community camps, provided 33,000 free meals, and accumulated 30,000 hours of academic intervention.
The Sanneh Foundation works to “empower youth by supporting and promoting educational attainment and to unite communities by advancing diversity, equity, and community well-being,” according to its website.
As far as uniting communities and starting productive dialogue, Sanneh told listeners when looking to start a venture: surround oneself with people who hold common interests and values.
He recounted a story of his childhood to exemplify this. Every day, Sanneh and his best friend would eat their lunch in 15 minutes, in order to have 30 minutes to go behind the school and juggle a soccer ball before class. Sanneh went on to play for US National Soccer Team and his friend went on to play in the Olympics.
In discussing the qualities that he looks for in employees at The Sanneh Foundation, he said, “Passion, a belief in equity and excellence for all people, and someone who enjoys working as a team are all high up on my priorities.”
Sanneh’s final piece of advice for Saint Mary’s students who are looking to help others is to maintain a balance in life. He said, “You should spend time thinking about how to make others around you feel better; but you need to take care of yourself, first.”
Sarah Walker and Tyler Aliperto