The second annual Sport for Social Change Awards Gala honored Washington Mystics president Sheila Johnson for philanthropy, Greater Washington Sports Alliance (GWSA) founder and board chair Fernando Murias for business leadership, Zachary Leonsis and Christopher Lodgeson.
By Jane Hess Collins
Soccer got glamorous as several hundred of the area’s top athletes, philanthropists, business leaders and soccer fans and players, including members of the DC Knights Street Soccer team, gathered at the Organization of American States on Thursday, May 20, to honor soccer’s top area activists. Chaired by Washington Capitals owner and AOL vice president emeritus Ted Leonsis, HELP USA board chair Maria Cuomo Cole and Jose Garcia, the gala raised funds for Street Soccer USA (SSUSA). SSUSA, which is part of the HELP USA network, uses soccer to teach life skills to homeless teens and adults, which subsequently increases their success in completing their education, and finding a job or housing.
The gala began with cocktails, photos and meet-and-greet, then Comcast SportsNet’s Chick Hernandez took the podium as the evening’s master of ceremonies. Representatives for the Greek ambassador, Vassilis Kaskerelis, and Jose Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the Organization for American States, welcomed the guests. Next came quite possibly the cutest part of the evening began when players from the 97 Fusion girls’ soccer team, part of the Team America Football Club, danced their award-winning “diski” dance that won them a trip to South Africa in March.
The award presentations began with Zachary Leonsis accepting his “Youth Service” award to a standing ovation. Leonsis thanked his parents for his “participating, not watching” approach. Likewise, proud dad Ted Leonsis was “thrilled and humbled to come to an event where my son is the honoree.” “It really is just an honor to see how my son has picked up the mantle and is already giving back,” Leonsis beamed.
Next, former Washington Redskin and NFL Hall of Fame inductee Darrell Green introduced Fernando Murias, who received the “Business Leadership” award for having raised over $20 million as the board chairman for Charity Works and other organizations, for developing the Greater Washington Sports Collaborative and for his leadership in the GWSA.
“Achievement” awardee Christopher Lodgeson delivered the evening’s most moving remarks. While living in a New York City shelter, Lodgeson’s chance encounter with SSUSA saved him. Speaking eloquently, Lodgeson thanked SSUSA for giving him the “possibility of being successful” and for renewing his “sense of possibility and hope.” His only recourse now, he said, was to join the ranks of the working. True to his word, Lodgeson is now closing in on an associate’s degree in accounting (he’s eying an MBA) and working at Bloomingdales in Manhattan.
Sheila Johnson was introduced by Ted Leonsis, as she received the “Philanthropy” award. Johnson concluded the evening’s awards and remarks with a passionate endorsement for the power of sports, citing the self-confidence she has seen organized sports instill in women across the world. Johnson challenged the audience to keep sports alive in schools and communities.
But the evening belonged to Lawrence Cann, founder of Street Soccer USA. SSUSA started five years ago when he volunteered at a homeless shelter in Charlotte, North Carolina. As he saw more and more homeless teenagers, Cann started a soccer team for them. In time, he connected with the Homeless World Cup, an event with 56 participating nations, and SSUSA was born.
It’s all about community for Cann. “I do believe the concept of family is central to the work we do,” he declared during his remarks. “The problem of homelessness is not an individual problem,” he said. Rather, he called it “a dreadful symptom of breakdown of community” that is incredibly hard to escape from.
Through a powerful combination of community, goal-setting, accountability, measurement and committed volunteers (who Cann called his “secret sauce”), 75% of SSUSA’s homeless clients have found a job, housing, and/or furthered their education within one year.
Cann shared his vision for SSUSA and the Washington, DC chapter. With a sharpened focus on research, measurement and identification of best practices in youth and volunteer programs and addressing substance abuse, violence and post-traumatic stress disorder, Cann sees a SSUSA model that can be both sustainable and easily replicated.
Cann unveiled a for-profit extension to his Washington, DC soccer program,by connecting the power of sports with opportunities through the “I Play For” initiative. A SSUSA patch is in the works, which will be awarded as a badge of excellence.
Most of all, Cann remembered organizing his first Street Soccer USA Cup, which united homeless and formerly homeless players nationwide “who had the same journey and the same experience. They understood each other without even having met each other. That was probably my proudest moment.”
The awards gala begins the countdown to the three-day, 18-city SSUSA Cup, held in downtown DC from July 30th-August 1st. The top players, chosen for achievement on and off the field, will represent the US Men’s and Women’s teams at the 48-nation Homeless World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in September.
Jane Hess Collins is a retired Air Force colonel who inspires people to contribute through writing, speaking and (hopefully) example. She also writes the “Get Out and Give Back” newspaper column, conducts workshops for clients to discover their most intrinsic way to serve, and has established game nights for at-risk families throughout the country. You can contact her at www.getoutandgiveback.com.