Law enforcers from at least eight police cars were waiting for a 17-year-old Miami Edison High School soccer player near his home for a crime he had committed, Gomez Laleau, the team’s coach at the time, recalls hearing. That player, whose name Laleau would not reveal, had just scored against Christopher Columbus High School, a powerhouse in Miami.
The high school soccer season, which lasts between August and November, didn’t seem to be enough to keep the youths out of illegal activities, Laleau said.
So Laleau wanted to create another avenue that would help the students stay away from criminal activities—a free-to-play, all-year-round soccer club. As far-fetched as it sounds in the United States’ soccer system, that club became a reality in 2014, Little Haiti Football Club (LHFC).
“A lot of children are benefiting from this work, this dream,” Laleau said. “A lot of them are graduating from school because of this dream, a lot of them would have ended up in prison or become young parents, almost guaranteeing a life in the margins of society. They have an outlet to not only play soccer but also to become an honest man or woman in the community.”
The story of the Little Haiti Football Club may be new but it is following a long path where sports is a ticket out of poverty and a better life for young people with precarious living conditions. These clubs provide a sense of camaraderie and belonging to young people in need of nurturing and caring.
Little Haiti F.C. has about 150 players, boys and girls, between age five and 19. Some of the players are from homeless families and live with their teammates. Despite that, through the club’s help, 100 percent of the players graduate from high school and 80 percent of them attend college.
The club holds a tutoring program at Miami Edison and North Miami High School, where most of the players attend school. LHFC has also helped many players get scholarships, some in Division I, to schools in Alabama, Kansas, Wisconsin, Georgia and so on. But most players end up staying in Florida and attend Miami-Dade College.
As the club board members were looking to provide more opportunities to the players, they were hit with a major heartache in May 2019. A drunk driver hit three players on a sidewalk, killing them instantly. Gedeon Desir, 13, Lens Desir, 15, and Richecarde Dumay, 17, were walking along Northeast 125th Street to catch a bus to get to a game, according to local reports.
“They weren’t doing anything unlawful,” Laleau said. “Those players will always remain in my heart.”
A mural of the three players was painted at Little Haiti Soccer Park, where the team plays.
The club started forming after Edison high school’s players proved themselves on the field in 2014. They blanked Ransom Everglades High School, a dominant team, 2-0 in a playoff match. Everglades coach Dave Villano felt compelled to ask Laleau if his players were playing club soccer.
The answer was no. Villano offered his help to found the club. The other co-founders by Laleau’s side were Pat Santangelo, a former public relations officer to ex-Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and Samuel Prunier, a Math teacher at Edison.
After receiving sponsorship money and a free rental at Little Haiti Soccer Park, LHFC started their first tryout. Before that there were mainly football games at Little Haiti Soccer Park. About 200 players showed up to the first tryout. But there was a major setback, the club hadn’t secured a permanent sponsor.
As the days went by, more funds were needed to pay the coaches, join leagues, equipements and more.
“It was a headache,” Laleau said. “I felt really bad, the idea was there but we didn’t have the economical means for it. We needed people who understood what we were doing and join the battle.”
The club managed to survive through funds from different organizations during their first five years. For instance, Sport Shake donated USD $10,000 to the club and financed their jerseys in 2015, Laleau said. Florida Beverage Association donated them a year’s worth of water and sports drinks in 2019 and so on.
It wasn’t until 2020 that LHFC found a permanent ally that’s helping them financially, Rush Soccer. Despite the financial struggles over the years, LHFC board remained a free-to-play youth club, one of the few in the U.S.
“That’s remarkable,” said Fernando Fiore, a widely known sportscaster who donated two teqball tables to the club in April. “The kids were amazing. They’re very competitive. You can see it in their eyes, they wanted to get better. ”
On and off the field
During their five years of existence, LHFC has won five major trophies. But the players’ performances on the field isn’t the club’s priority.
“The coaches’ board insists that the kids pick up with their schoolwork,” Santangelo said.
The club’s tutoring program has been on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however the players still go to the classroom after school to finish their homework, practice for the SAT and so on.
“School is like their second home,” Santangelo said. “Instead of their second home being the streets or a gang.”
Some of the club’s board members are teachers or hold high positions in schools so they’re the ones who tutor the players. As mentioned, Prunier is a Math teacher at Edison and Laleau is a dean at North Miami High School.
It’s also crucial to mentor the players so they don’t commit criminal activities, Laleau said.
“It happened because he didn’t have guidance,” said Laleau, referring to the 17-year-old who was arrested. “Nobody was watching him. If he was in a program that was helping him morally, socially, if he was being taught certain stuff maybe it wouldn’t have reached this far.”
Usually, there are about two parents at the late teenage players’ games and practices, which is a huge difference from other teams, Santangelo said.
“These kids are not supposed to succeed statistically but 100 percent of them graduate from high school,” Santangelo said. “We’re preparing those kids for the future. Well done is better than well said.”