The 2016 Summer Olympics officially started on August 5th in the vibrant city of Rio de Janeiro. From the tourist-popular fine sands of the Copacabana beaches, hundreds of thousands of global spectators gathered to watch the fireworks coming from the Maracanã Stadium.
About 3,500 miles away in Haiti, just outside the capital city of Port-au-Prince, is Cité Soleil , an extremely under-resourced community with about 400,000 residents. This is where Empower 2 Play plans to hold its next sports event. As the world sets its eyes towards the magnificent celebration of sports diplomacy in Rio, Coach AK and a dedicated team of volunteers prepare to bring that same diplomacy to the community of Cité Soleil .
Cité Soleil was once called by the United Nations “The most dangerous place in the Northern Hemisphere.” Over the years the situation has became better and there has been more stability on the ground, but the majority of residents still live in extreme poverty. There are few formal businesses, virtually no sewer system, sporadic access to electricity, and poor healthcare options. Though violence has declined largely due to the United Nations Stabilization Mission which started in 2004, the struggle over control between gangs and peacekeeping forces continue today.
Coach AK mentions a couple of reasons why Empower 2 Play picked Haiti, and specifically Cité Soleil as the location for the next series of camps. The first reason is the proximity of Haiti to the United States both physically and cerebrally. Because of this “closeness” there is a strong sense of familiarity with the country. This was most evident in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake when thousands of Americans from doctors to firefighters to businessmen, along with philanthropic organizations and national governments, provided humanitarian aid to ameliorate some of the immediate suffering the country was going through.
The second reason is Empower 2 Play currently has a network of contacts in Cité Soleil that can help the organization better learn about the culture of the local community and help develop a program that can genuinely bring gains to the residents.
“As we think about expanding into different countries, it’s not easiest to say ‘Hey we’re just going to go on a map and pick a place!’ We really want to immerse ourselves within the community so we have to make sure that when we go in there, we have the proper resources and networks to navigate, especially navigate safely.” – Coach AK
Coach AK decided to visit Haiti after he coincidentally met a women named Gehanne while on a run in the Bahamas. Gehanne was originally from Haiti and helped provide Coach AK with a number of important contacts in both Port-au-Prince as well as Cité Soleil . In December of 2015, Coach AK saw first-hand, the impoverishment of the country, still rebuilding after the terrifying impact of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake. But while visiting orphanages and meeting with local community members he also felt the tremendous gratitude of the people, proud of what little they had, and what they had built in the face of historic challenge. Coach AK was both surprised and hopeful about the opportunities for Empower 2 Play to make a lasting difference.
Near the end of my chat with Coach AK he emphasized the importance of going to Cité Soleil as the first test of scalability for Empower 2 Play. Though he recognizes that there are many differences between the communities, Coach AK also believes that the model of sports diplomacy that found success in Quezon City can also be adapted to face the challenges of Cité Soleil .
Coach AK has also just recently returned from a trip to Cité Soleil to prepare for the sports event on September 17 and 18, 2016. Kako Bourjolly, a popular Haitian celebrity, will co-host the event. Though Coach AK is expecting to bring a team of 25 people and work with about 300 kids, he hopes to utilize new technologies to help others see Empower 2 Play’s mission at work. Through Virtual Reality (VR), those in the United States and around the world can follow along with awesome immersion. Coach AK is also bringing along a number of well-known athletes to Cité Soleil . The sport played and taught has not currently been decided yet but will either be American Football or Ultimate Frisbee.
Empower 2 Play is hoping that a successful first year in Cité Soleil will help the organization launch potentially larger programs in Haiti and other countries.
Empower 2 Play is currently accepting volunteers to come along with the team to experience as well as contribute to the great work of the organization. To be a part of this incredible experience, people can apply here on the Empower 2 play website.