by Jennifer McArdle
Voices from the field: Paul Goodrich and African Sports Outreach
Blending sport and development in Africa is about changing lives and making the future brighter. All too often, people in the United States associate Africa with a place of fear, destitution, and despair. Paul Goodrich, an all-American soccer player in his own right, believes that sport, and soccer in particular, can be a positive agent for change, both to help African youth and to work towards changing American’s perceptions about our brothers and sisters in Africa. His organization, African Sports Outreach, has achieved remarkable success, and his model of using the raw power of soccer to bridge people is making a difference, both in Western Africa and in the United States. Paul was gracious enough to share his stories with IMPUMELELO.
Tell me a little about yourself and your background:
I was born in St. Paul, MN, Dec 4, 1967 and my family moved several times when I was growing up. I did my undergrad studies in Geography at Wittenberg University, graduate studies at Ohio University. This was pre-international relations/development studies type major days, so I majored in geography but took French, studied abroad, and created my own international relations. But my actual, hard-core, tangible development courses took place at the graduate level at Ohio University.
What were some of the best things about your time at OU and how do you think that time prepared you to go into what you are doing now?
Ohio University and the graduate studies in Geography under Dr. Bob Walter’s guidance afforded me the opportunity to bring together my varied interests in cultural geography, development studies, sport and the vision to bridge the areas to assist needy street youth to reach their full potential.
Paul and ASO in Togo
In between your undergraduate and graduate studies, you spent two years in the Peace Corps. Can you talk about your time there?
I was an Agricultural extension agent in Togo to begin with. But, it was a rough period [due to the political turmoil in Togo], so consequently a lot of my time was spent either working with the schools teaching or working with the soccer teams. Street kids as well as the village elders saw that I could connect to kids through soccer and they saw that I had the ability to play at a high level—I was an All-American in college and I played semi-professionally in France and Africa. The kids could relate to my talent so they had this built-in respect, and the village leaders saw that I had professionalism as a development worker and humanitarian. So, I could help work with adults to say “how can we make a positive impact on the lives of these street kids through sports programs, through education programs and then how could I relate to the kids?” Well, it was through actual hands-on soccer work. There were a lot of disruptions that went on, but soccer helped to be a bridge. I was able to help keep kids off the street and people literally entertained and not caught up on differences.
How did you continue this work after you graduated from OU?
While I was at OU I applied to, and was the first from OU to be accepted into, the Catholic Relief Services Internship Program, and that helped open the door for OU development studies students. This was a great opportunity and a springboard for me to see first hand how to tie together in-field and out-of -field development work, from the funding side, to the implementing side, the results, and bringing success stories and lessons learned back. I was an intern with the program in Senegal and I worked hand-in-hand with the village banking group. I was also responsible for helping to implement an HIV/AIDS awareness project that tied-in with the different village banking groups that we worked with in the country.
How was African Sports Outreach established?
ASO was born from my experiences in Togo. I have been literally keeping a small program alive since then, and it has grown. While I have had other jobs here stateside, I have managed to support the ASO programs in Togo, I just hadn’t formalized it. In 2001, I applied for 501(c)(3) status here in the state of Oregon. I was working at Nike at the time so the experiences that I had while recruiting at Nike helped open the door for support and sponsorship for my programs. I finally took the jump and left Nike in December 2001 to run ASO full time.
Can you speak a little to some of the challenges that you faced when you were trying to start up ASO?
I guess the big challenge with nonprofit work is always the fundraising puzzle and I had very good support from the start. Out of the gate, I had very a healthy private funding base through several very inspired individual donors that saw the potential for my work. So, that helped give me the start-up capital that I needed to start building the nonprofit. From there, I would say the second piece is grant writing and managing the communication pieces like the website.
What is the relationship between ASO and Nike today?
We don’t a formal sponsorship. However, they do support me with in-kind equipment, apparel, uniforms, and shoes, and that is something that we are working on formalizing. As we grow, Nike is very interested to see our model replicated throughout Africa…our “school for life” model, as I like to describe it.
Would you like to speak more on what that model is?
ASO’s program is based on a “school for life” model that has its foundations and beginnings in the Tahuichi Soccer Academy in Bolivia, which for the last 30 years has been sponsoring street kids in Bolivia with schooling, after school soccer, and medical support. Currently they sponsor over 3,000 children and over the last 30 years they have seen tens and tens of US college graduates, professional soccer players, and have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 6 times. I see them as some of the most incredible ambassadors of social change in the world. Having seen how Tahuichi works, and having met with the president shortly after I had formed ASO, we saw that there was common ground in our focus: we were centered, not on trying to develop professional athletes, but on providing kids with a well-rounded education so that they continue their studies and learn life skills through their soccer. Or, as we like to say, “ we use soccer as a means to teach life.”
How would you describe the real mission that you see of ASO?
Basically ASO is a community-based sports and education program. We help to find solutions to the ever-challenging problems that confront Africa’s youth. That is, we help to provide them with access to basic healthcare, nutritional support, schooling, and after-school soccer or sport. These components follow the “school for life” model of Tahuichi. Also, we help identify and mold future leaders, both on and off the soccer field. And, the magic that is experienced when watching our kids play, on and off the field, is in part thanks to the support that we provide them with the schooling and the food and the nutrition and the tools they need to be able to excel, without which they are back on the street and the opportunities just aren’t there.
Does ASO have people operating in Africa to implement these programs?
Yes, we have a program in Togo that is staffed by a manager and coaches, and we sponsor approximately 250 street kids, who are predominantly AIDS orphans. We sponsor these kids ages 8 to18 and we stay with them. So, in other words, if we commit to supporting a kid at 8 years old, we expect for him or her to graduate from high school and/or attend university, play professional, or find employment. And we have had a nearly 100% placement rate.
How do you recruit kids into the program?
We’re well known and established in Togo and consequently, the kids make their way to us. We can’t support as many kids as we would like to for there are thousands and this is out of reach of our resources and base. However, we do work with those kids who exhibit a passion and drive to improve their lives through schooling and soccer. Not all the kids have this perspective.. Whereas we can’t support thousands at our ASO Togo academy like the Tahuichi Academy in Bolivia due to budget limitations; we do have a model that can be replicated by other nonprofits who in turn can help work with those we cannot take in our doors. We work with other organizations in country, and this helps spread the mission of our work and also to reach out to more kids. In Africa, and specifically in West Africa, many kids don’t have access to education. Even though in many of the countries it is subsidized or free, the small costs that are there, whether it is books, pencils, uniforms, can keep a family from sending boys and/or girls to school, and usually it is the girls that are put second. So, if we can find a way to help offset those costs, we’ll actually sponsor the child and tell the family that we’ll help pay for those costs through a sponsorship with US donors. The families are all for it because they see great hope in education.
Where do you see the organization going in the next couple of years?
Honestly, I see it as a break-out period where the model that we have in place and the model that Tahuichi has proven to be successful over the last 30 years is ready to just launch; it’ll explode. With that in mind, I have been mining support here in the states and trying to bridge youth soccer and education in the US and Europe with our programs in Africa. This relationship is not just centered on a gift mindset, but more so, how can peers help empower peers. And that can be done through soccer. We’re working on formalizing a child sponsorship where youth soccer teams here can help sponsor, and follow, and help empower their peers in Africa.
On the US side, I have been running soccer clinics and technical training which mimic the skills and training that our kids learn on the streets and in our programs in Africa. So all the panache and skillful play that I learned personally and professionally while being around my African friends and living and working there, I have managed to teach to kids here even though it has been ignored as being unnecessary. Whether you’re in Europe, Africa, or the US, kids have this unbridled sense of play. If you can tap into it and give them things to look forward to and challenge them with different technical skill work, they’ll take to it. Consequently, I have a huge base of kids here in the US that includes three US national team players, several professional players, and probably 30 collegiate players that have all trained with me and are highly skillful, game-changing maestros. So, that part of it is going to tie in to the ASO Africa. The magic that I help provide US kids comes from kids in desperate, dire situations in Africa. By learning this magic you can help give them an opportunity to further their education just as your education and your opportunities have been furthered through my training. It’s a full circle.
Youth here just love what I do and they are inspired by it. They ask me “where did you learn these moves?” and I say I learned them in South Africa and in Togo, my 8 year old players can do this. They say, “Oh really! Is that right? Tell me more about Africa.” Now all of a sudden the door opens to Africa, and then you send uniforms, and then they see uniforms on the back of a child. This way you have people that are invested and when kids are invested in it, their parents take notice. So it’s a good way to do the funding. I am intending to build these soccer schools where kids can come and learn the African skill sets that I teach anywhere. We have a technique and a model in place which kids can come from all backgrounds to learn, and then go back to their clubs and be confident players. This will help develop a potential donor community.
What do you see as the tie between sport and development?
It’s hope. Having the opportunity to work with youth throughout the world I have found a common pattern/theme with the importance of sports and education: hope. When I asked my friend, and three time African footballer of the year, Abedi Pele, whose one of the world’s most well-known soccer players and arguably one of the top, if not the top, African soccer player of all time, who has king status in Africa, what sports and education mean to kids in Africa, he said it’s the place where heaven and earth meet…..it’s everything. While coaching at the 6 time Nobel peace prize nominated Tahuichi Soccer Academy in Bolivia, I asked one of the star youth boys what sport, soccer, meant to him and his response was the same as Abedi Pele’s. So from South America and a hard-knock life in Bolivia to a hard-knock life in Ghana, both individuals, one of the world’s top soccer players and one an aspiring 9-year-old, said the same thing: that sport and education is a place where heaven and earth meet. So, this is kind of the platform that we use to tackle and change the challenges that we see in the cruel, crazy, beautiful world that we live in.
To what do you attribute all of your success?
I think it was having this sense of grounding from my upbringing and living and working abroad. My mother, who has fought Parkinson’s disease for since my youth, always told me that others suffer far worse. Having lived, played, and worked alongside the poorest of the poor through my work in Africa, I take little for granted. I don’t see a real split between developing and developed worlds. I see it more on human terms. Because of that, I have always been able to keep it in perspective, that there is a way to make it work. Consequently, I think that the model, starting small and having a big impact comes from Peace Corps. If people ask where is the top development work happening in Africa or the Third World, I would lean towards village based programs that have smaller effects, like Peace Corps volunteers. On paper, they don’t necessarily register like a large USAID project in the same country, but the multiplier effect is incredible. Staying small is a difficult thing to explain to potential donors in the US who really think bigger is better. But, our goal is small schools replicated indefinitely. The main thing is keeping with that child so that he or she doesn’t have hesitation. It’s not new. There’ve been child sponsorship programs through respected international relief and development agencies like , through Save the Children, but they didn’t have sport; they didn’t have teams as the glue.
At Coe College [the undergraduate alma mater of the interviewer] if you wanted to sponsor a team in Togo or Ghana, you’d have a connection with these girls over time. The soccer keeps the long-term relationships there: as long as they are in school, they can play on the team. This is rock-solid because they love being on teams that are formalized and that can give them access to games, they’re in school. So, you’re playing the two off on each other. You can’t play on the team unless you’re in school.
Is there anything else that you would like to add to what you have said?
Sport-in-Development is a change agent, an agent of ‘positivity’. Sport provides an environment in which one can learn to make real world choices and decisions, and live with the outcome. That happens on and off the field, and that is what I teach through my training here and also what the kids learn through our programs in Africa. Where else can one better learn how to resolve conflict, take risks, team-build, take the initiative, adapt, and adjust to adversity, trust and respect one’s advisory and team-mate, than on the playing field? And, these are all life skills that roll over to the real world. There ya have it.