The seeds were planted at a phone booth — an early-2000s, central-African version of a phone booth, that is.
Twelve years back, Justin Forzano was a University of Dayton undergrad participating in an Engineers Without Borders project in Cameroon, with the aim of improving public water distribution.
At the side of a road, adjacent to a table where a man offered use of his cell phone for a nominal fee, Forzano met Peter Ngwane.
“He spoke pretty good English,” Forzano recalled of Ngwane, explaining why the two young men from opposite sides of the globe hit it off.
Four years later, with soccer fanatic Forzano glued to TV coverage of the 2010 men’s World Cup in South Africa, he first heard of the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP). Specifically, Forzano was intrigued by the UNOSDP’s efforts to develop community-powered sports organizations in nations where they were either absent or lacking.
That was the ‘lightbulb’ moment for Forzano, the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Cameroon Football Development Program, one of our Season 1 Non-Profit Partners here at Do-Goodery.
The connections fostered on that trip to Cameroon have blossomed into what is now a thriving youth league, one that encompasses seven neighborhoods across the cities of Kumba and Bamenda, and involves more than 400 children.
“Our mission is to change kids’ lives,” Forzano said, adding that Cameroon FDP’s three-pronged focus is on fostering health, education and leadership.
Forzano is currently the only stateside member of his organization’s staff, although most board members are here in western Pennsylvania. Over in Cameroon — which is tucked under Nigeria and against the Gulf of Guinea on Africa’s west coast — there are eight full-time staffers, plus four ‘community leaders’ who also give of their time.
Upon its founding in 2010, Cameroon FDP worked with existing soccer clubs to provide opportunities for kids to play in organized fashion, but Forzano said those clubs’ primary motivation remained developing elite athletes to then sell to professional teams worldwide.
That approach was fine for the best of the best, but not the overwhelming majority of the youngsters in the nation. After taking the initiative a couple of years back, Cameroon FDP now runs leagues for kids aged 10 to 16, precisely the group that was underserved by the old system.
“Those were the kids that showed up,” Forzano said. “There’s definitely a lot of (playing) opportunity for older kids and young men, but rarely organized activities for the younger kids.”
Continuing civil unrest in Cameroon has limited how much FDP can spread its soccer gospel geographically, so Forzano said the goal for now is to “double down” on the communities currently involved in the program.
Part of that effort involves putting together a blueprint for similarly-styled constructive sport programs elsewhere. With Ngwane’s team providing boots-on-the-ground input and Forzano making annual trips to Cameroon, they’ve developed a multi-pronged model called PLAY4PURPOSE, which is aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and FIFA’s Football for Hope.
“We want it to be youth-led and neighborhood-based,” Forzano said.
That goal — for this to be a self-sustaining, organic phenomenon — is achievable because of Cameroon’s passionate affinity for the world’s most popular team sport.
“It’s something that’s so ingrained in their society,” Forzano said. “It’s part of the identity of Cameroonians. … It’s relatable. It’s not some foreign intervention.”
Still, the Pittsburgh-area imprint on this endeavor is unmistakeable.
You might’ve noticed in the video that the logo of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Soccer Club was emblazoned on the uniforms worn by some Cameroon FDP players. The Hounds are one of several local organizations and/or youth programs that have contributed apparel and equipment to the cause.
In fact, when I spoke to Forzano last week, he was just getting back from a pair of trips to Columbus, Ohio, to help pack oceanic shipping containers full of soccer-related goods, both new and second-hand. (You might’ve read about it on Cameroon FDP’s profile page!)
The University of Pittsburgh helped with that collection effort, and the shipping cost was completely underwritten by the Mt. Lebanon Soccer Association. Past contributors of soccer goods and/or funds include Beadling, Arsenal, Chatham University and Avonworth High School.
“We do it two or three times a year,” Forzano said of the circuitous shipments. “It’s worth it in the end.”
Forzano seems to live by those last six words.
After spending a couple of years in the engineering field, he’s carved out a career in soccer-based altruism. Since 2014, he’s served as programming director and staff coach for Pittsburgh Soccer in the Community, a non-profit that has similar aims to Cameroon FDP in terms of developing soccer and life skills, albeit right here in western Pennsylvania. Recent immigrants and refugees make up much of the demographic PSC serves, so there’s a cross-cultural aspect as well.
All of it ties into a common theme — sport as a force for good. It’s the goal that inspired the original Olympic movement and spawned countless other worldwide competitions, even if they sometimes fall short.
For Cameroon Football Development Program, it’s an ideal worth striving toward. And it’s not meant to be limited by man-made borders.
“We want to develop a model,” Forzano said, “that can be replicated in the developing world.”
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