By ANDREW GARDA
This winter, the charity Kids in Cleats is striving to help break the cycle of poverty in one small village in Cameroon, while teaching Montclair kids the power of giving.
The program came into being when two Montclair residents met on the soccer field.
Julio Tsasse — a native of Cameroon whose soccer talents gave him opportunities to travel out of the country, support family there and improve his life — met Erica Gerstman on the soccer field, where he coached for Montclair United and her son was on the team. Together, they co-founded Kids in Cleats, where Tsasse is program director and Gerstman is executive director
One time, after Tsasse returned from an Africa trip where he did some charity work and visited family, Gerstman asked about his visit. When she saw the pictures he’d taken, Gerstman told Tsasse that it was a dream of hers to do something charitable in Africa. She had been there some time before and wanted to help. She also wanted to use the opportunity to teach her kids and others the value of giving.
Out of that discussion, the Montclair program was born. Kids in Cleats aims to use the massive popularity of soccer in Cameroon to engage with young people and their families, to assist with education and food security and connect kids with soccer training academies, universities and job-training programs.
It’s also about giving kids in Cameroon a place where they can shower, eat and play soccer without the constant fear of kidnapping, Tsasse said.
“Cameroon, right now we have instability, like not in the whole Cameroon territory, just some part of [it],” Tsasse said. “So, you know, sometimes you have these rebels going to schools wanting to kidnap kids.”
The charity has already built a facility with a soccer field, classrooms, showers and a community center, all with electricity, but the main focus currently is building a strong wall around the facility to keep rebels out and kids safe.
The “Building Hope, Brick by Brick” campaign is raising funds for that wall, which is estimated to cost $100,000 and require in the neighborhood of 50,000 bricks. Those who wish to help out can pledge monthly or one-time amounts of $25, $50 or $100.
When the facility opens, soccer will be played, but the organization will also help the kids meet specific educational goals, which the organization hopes will result in their entering secondary schools or training programs abroad. The children will also attend sessions to educate them on HIV/AIDS awareness, Type 1 diabetes, safe sex practices and various other health care issues.
According to KIC, 32% of children under 5 suffer from malnutrition in Cameroon, though in some regions it is as high as 50%. More than 46% of children live below the poverty line. There are 300,000 Cameroonian children who have been orphaned by the AIDS epidemic, while 31,000 ranging in age from infancy to 14 years old have HIV.
It all starts with a safe environment, though, so the wall is critical.
A personal project
For Tsasse, the endeavor is about continuing work his father did.
When he was a child in Bamedjinda, a village in Cameroon, his father often had many different people from the village at their house.
“When you came into our house, it looks like a day care full of adults,” he said. “Because my dad adopted a lot of people from his village.”
Tsasse and his father, who died when Tsasse was only 8 years old, didn’t have a lot, as his father earned the equivalent of $2 a day. However, his father never hesitated to help out the people he met, especially from his own village.
“So when you went home, every time there’s dinner, they used to put food in these big things,” Tsasse recalled. “It wasn’t like a plate, you know, because it was a lot of people. So they put food for the adults into a big, humongous, like a metal sink.”
The food was placed for all to partake in, and nobody was turned away.
“That was my dad. So, growing up, seeing that, definitely clicked in my mind,” Tsasse said. “When he sees you, if he feels like his life is better than yours, he’ll try to help you.”
When his father died, Tsasse, even at 10 years old, was determined to follow in his footsteps, especially once soccer afforded him the opportunity to leave Cameroon.
“I wanted to fulfill his mission,” he said. “And that’s when I decided to do the charity, and that’s why we’re doing the charity on his land. You know, another thing to try and honor his ideas.”
Tsasse was a talented goalkeeper, and was encouraged by his uncle and his father’s friends to continue to play. They took him to tournaments and games where clubs and scouts would see him, and at one of those tournaments, which took place in France, he was noticed by members of SC Monaco. He was selected by the club to be housed, educated and trained by the club at its facility.
He spent the next six years out of the country, sending the money the club gave him back to his family in Cameroon.
By the time he was 18, Tsasse was playing for a Division 1 team in Mali, and soon after played in North Carolina for the Wilmington Hammerheads of the United States Soccer League before moving on to New York and former Manchester United player Kevin Grogan’s club, NY Shamrock SC. From there he would begin coaching, a passion that landed him at Montclair United.
All the while, Tsasse continued to find ways to help those less fortunate at home and keep his father’s ideals going.
One of the things that convinced Tsasse to work with Gerstman was seeing a spirit similar to his father’s in her.
“She was a person that was like, ‘You know what, if I’m better off than you, I will try to help,’” Tsasse said. “You know, like always thinking about, ‘Let me try to jump in here and help this guy, or this person.’”
While life can be tough in Cameroon, it’s important for Tsasse and the charity to show the joy that takes place as well. He said KIC doesn’t want to do what so many American-based charities do when it comes to Africa, and focus on starving kids and despondent faces.
The Kids in Cleats website shows people happy, enjoying being together and working together, whether playing a game or eating or just sitting and chatting.
Just like at Tsasse’s childhood dinner table, joy can be found in difficult circumstances.
“So we emphasize that,” he said. “We talk about hunger. We talk about kids not affording stuff, but we’re not posting as many skinny kids as we can find to try to make people donate. This is purely, like I said, genuine people trying to raise awareness.”
In many ways, not only is Tsasse living out his father’s ideas, but so are the various local kids getting involved.
The Young Ambassadors program at Kids in Cleats consists of volunteers who work to help the charity in many different ways, from raising awareness on social media to fundraising to outreach within the Montclair community.
There are seven young people listed on the website currently, and Tsasse said there is always room for more. The benefits for the ambassadors are obvious, he said. The kids see things in the world that are problems, and through the charity they learn then can have an impact. They also get a chance to take on things and follow them through to completion, then see the results.
“They are definitely getting more responsible,” he said.
It’s not a one-way street, as the kids come up with great ideas for the charity as well.
“They’re the ones that came up with the idea of doing something on the website, like a clothing line. So people can go and any time they buy [something], a percentage goes to the charity,” Tsasse said.
“So they’re looking for ways to make the organization better. It just made them more mature because they’re trying to find ways to help in the right way. So, it definitely changed them in that direction.”
Those interested in volunteering or donating can visit kidsincleats.org.