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From Cameroon to Pittsburgh, Open Field uses soccer for ‘something more’

Justin Forzano has been the driving force behind Open Field International (photo courtesy Open Field Int'l)

From Cameroon to Pittsburgh, Open Field uses soccer for ‘something more’

When he was a college student, studying engineering at the University of Dayton, Justin Forzano took a trip to Cameroon, as part of a program called Engineers without Borders.

It was a life-altering experience for the Wheeling, West Virginia native, one that would eventually lead to the creation of a non-profit organization that began making a difference and connecting with programs to benefit communities in Cameroon, and eventually those in select neighborhoods in the City of Pittsburgh.

SOCCER: A HUGE PART OF THE DAILY CULTURE 

Forzano spent time in Cameroon in 2006, 2007 and 2008, immersing himself in urban settings in the African country, learning and discovering about many things beyond the engineering projects he was there to check out.

“That first year, it was a cultural immersion. I lived with a host family. Went into communities. Saw what (engineering) projects that needed to be done,” Forzano said. “What happened, I became acquainted with a guy that was the secretary with the local non-profit we were working with. A young guy, like my age. After work, we would hang out. Go shopping in the market, do all kinds of stuff.”

And of course, they would play soccer.

“He said, why don’t you come play soccer Saturday morning,” Forzano said. “Intent of my being there was to connect the student with the culture. And, of course, soccer is such a huge part of the daily culture there,” 

Forzano’s connection and bond with the people he interacted with in Cameroon grew exponentially through soccer.

“I grew up playing soccer. Pretty involved in school. I played since I was five or six. My neighbor was head coach of Wheeling Jesuit. It’s kind of what we did. Went to Bethany Soccer Camps as a kid. Played all through high school. Played club at UD,” Forzano recalled,”It wasn’t the thing, but a big part of it.” 

With each trip he made to Cameroon, Forzano kept coming back wanting to find a way to do more to help the people in those communities where he connected and made many new friends.”

Forzano kept these ideas and thoughts circulating, but wasn’t sure what course of action he would take.

MAKING IT HAPPEN

Leading up to the 2010 World Cup, Forzano, now working in Pittsburgh, learned more about Sport for Local Change Network, which had been founded by Nike in 2007.

“It was an ‘ah-ha’ moment,” Forzano said. “We can use this game, and this sport for something more. Especially for people that don’t have a lot.” 

In collaboration with other organizations, Nike created ‘Sport for Social Change Networks’ (SSCNs) in South Africa, Brazil, Kenya & UK that strive for strategic collaboration between the private and public sector in order to create opportunities for sports as an agent for change and devel­opment for the youth.

“I took a look around and there was nothing going on (in Cameroon),” Forzano recalled.”There were a few things but nothing was really being publicized, there wasn’t really anything happening. I started to reach out to folks I knew and connected with in Cameroon, and just put it out there — what do you think if we did something like this?” 

In partnership with a nonprofit organization and registered association in Meme Division (Southwest Region, Cameroon, Africa), Forzano created CameroonFDP as a Pittsburgh-based non-profit (501.c.3) with its mission to improve the lives and futures of youth through sport.

“I didn’t know that much about non-profits, so it was a continuous learning process,” Forzano said. “I figured it out.” 

Forzano sure did.

His ‘passion project’ suddenly became a non-profit venture connected through two countries that were 6,000 miles apart, while he was still working full-time as an engineer. 

By 2013, Cameroon FDP was awarded its first grant from The Rotary Foundation, with support from Pittsburgh East Rotary Club, to pilot a new program model that integrated health and social education directly into community soccer leagues. The following year the program gained entrance into streefootballworld, the premier global network of Football for Good organizations. In 2015, Open Field received funding from the FIFA Foundation (formerly FIFA Football for Hope) and has been supported every year since then.

Beginning in 2017, they began developing and testing a new model for Sport for Good that put youth at the center of all activities. Various components of our youth-led, community-based approach were introduced and tested in 4 neighborhoods in the Southwest Region of Cameroon in 2017 and expanded to 3 more in 2018, including one in a city in the Northwest Region.

In addition to hosting competitions and several educational sessions per week for more than 3,000 youth over the years, the non-profit organization has created life-changing experiences for youth, such as the Super Cup to Develop Young Leaders for boys in 2015 and the Super Cup to Empower Girls alongside the Africa Women Cup of Nations, which Cameroon hosted in 2016.

In 2018, a select U-15 boys soccer team from Cameroon was invited to participate in the SATUC World Cup in Bulgaria (Europe). It was CameroonFDP’s first international tournament.

FROM CAMEROON TO PITTSBURGH

Having carved out a successful program in Cameroon, ranging from having more than a 1,000 kids involved in 14 different neighborhoods in three cities, this past year, Forzano turned toward Pittsburgh, as he recognized a similar need here in some of our inner city neighborhoods. 

Re-branding the non-profit under the new name Open Field International, programming in Pittsburgh launched in 2019 after years of developing a successful model in Africa.

“The thing that’s amazing, is that there are things we’ve done in Cameroon, that apply to working with communities right here in Pittsburgh,” Forzano said. “Mission is pretty straight forward. We’re about improving lives. We want to create a safe space for youth to play and learn, with an educational topic connected to every practice and game.”

In less than a year, Open Field has now created programs in two Pittsburgh neighborhoods: Northview Heights and Crafton Heights.

Each neighborhood has its own challenges, with majority of the immigrants most living alongside mostly heavily African-American population.

In year one in Pittsburgh, Open Field created programs that have included more than 150 participants, and partnered with other organizations in those neighborhoods.

In Northview Heights, a Pittsburgh neighborhood where one in 11 have chance of being a victim of crime — 234 percent higher than the national average, Open Field partners with Youth Places and the Somali Bantu Community Association of Pittsburgh to run the program in what is an isolated Northview Heights neighborhood, as part of Youth Places’ summer camp.

“This is our signature expansion project in Pittsburgh,” Forzano said. “There’s massive green space in that neighborhood. There’s a large immigrant population drawn to soccer. “With Youth Places — they’ve been serving that community for 20 years. They have long-standing relationship with — primarily – the African American kids there, They had about 30 kids from Somali population. Another 30 kids from African-American kids — most who haven’t been exposed to soccer.” 

Through this partnership, and driven by one of the organization’s motto’s ‘every kid deserves a role model, on and off the field’ — Open Field is determined to connect younger kids with positive role models. 

One of those positive role models is Haji Mada.

Mada was born in a refugee camp in Kenya, and was one of 4,000 refugees who resettled in Pittsburgh over the last decade. He lives with his mother and three siblings in Northview Heights.

The 16 year-old is working hard to change his community.

He is one of eight Open Field Youth Leaders determined to improve the quality of life for younger kids in their neighborhood of Northview Heights.

“Our partnership (with Youth Places) made that connection happen. But when you have high school kids coaching and reffing, it took me out of the equation. American kids see other kids in leadership role and helps with connection and relationship,” Forzano added.  

There have been good connections made, but one stood out to Forzano.

“I remember one African-American kid in particular. He wasn’t having it. Didn’t want anything to do with soccer,” Forzano said. “But after watching some of the older kids playing the game, and seeing how much fun it was, he’s quickly grew a liking to the game. Now, sometimes, he’s at the field an hour before we begin our programs, just playing with a ball, and working on his skills.”  

There are some similarities in Crafton, where Open Field has also worked with Jewish Family and Community Services Pittsburgh connecting with the recently resettled refugees from Syria and Congo in that neighborhood, living along side Pittsburgh residents and immigrants from other countries.

In working in this neighborhood, Forzano has utilized different resources from partnering with the JCF and the private ownership of the complex in Crafton Heights to also include social workers and physical therapists.

Forzano said it wasn’t an easy start this past year, as they’ve tried to get a girls program going.

“There was fighting — African girls were fighting with Middle-Eastern girls, and the American girls were fighting with African girls,” Forzano said. “They were taunting each other. They weren’t isolated incidents. What we did and started to do is hoping to bring these kids together in a positive way.”

Open Field and its partners took action.

“We held a camp twice a week. All girls. All women led,” Forzano said. “It was a direct response to what we found — and we set it up as a Pilot program. Next year, it’s our hope to have a girls soccer program that will run from April to October. With our partners, it’s really unique as we bring groups together to work besides one another.” 

There’s still a lot of work to be done in Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, and Forzano is excited about continuing to grow Open Field locally and really moving forward in 2020. Recently Forzano’s jumped into his role as the organization’s lone, full-time staff person.

“We want to get more people involved. Volunteering is one way. We’ll put out a call in early 2020. Bring people in Spring/Summer/Fall — and provide proper training — and we’re looking forward to building out,” Forzano said. 

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer with Open Field, click here.

Forzano said he’s also constantly looking for in-kind equipment donations. They’re looking to send 1,000 jerseys and 500 soccer balls for kids in Cameroon in the coming months.  

In addition to some of the aforementioned partnerships with the foundation community, Open Field relies mostly on financial support from individual contributions.

You can donate to Open Field, online here.

“As we grow –we’re looking for ways to more financial support, but each person can make a difference,” Forzano said. “We’ve already seen that as this program wouldn’t be where it is without community support.”  

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets including Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the United States. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

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