Teens Helping Teens from Haiti
“It’s blossoming now.”
That’s what Florida soccer mom, Gretchen Keehn says of her daughter’s team efforts to make life better for their former competitors from Haiti.
The U.S. girls, the best of the best, competed in an under-17 (U-17) women's championship of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, or CONCACAF, in Alajuela, Costa Rica last March.
They easily beat their competitors from Haiti 9-0.
Elated, the win meant the girls would move on in this World Cup qualifier.
But after the game, Haiti’s goalie, Alexandra Coby, fell to the ground in tears. Several members of the US team approached and embraced her. A sports photographer took the picture of the 90 second hug heard and seen around the world after coverage from ESPN, network and local news.
"The goalkeeper had lost both of her parents and every player on the team was homeless," said Bryane Heaberlin through a Skype connection from her team's hotel in Costa Rica to Fox 13 in Tampa. The U.S. girls left the field in tears.
Two days later, the U.S team sent care packages to the U-17 Haitian team stuffed with Tampa’s Berkeley Prep warm-ups, makeup and personal care items.
"That was the one of the best moments of our lives I think," said Heaberlin, a Berkeley Preparatory sophomore who was handpicked to compete in a World Cup qualifying tournament for girls 17-and-under.
Sport Brings Compassion
Their compassion didn’t stop there. A documentary on ESPN captured what the Haitian teen team would be returning home to: a country rocked by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake on January 12 that killed more than 220,000. Every one of the girls was left homeless, but at least they were safe.
The girls had been practicing inside their Port-au-Prince stadium the day the quake hit. With the epicenter 15 miles away, they were safe. But outside, their head coach lay trapped in the rubble and later died.
Many of the girls lost one or both parents. Today, most sleep in tents with no running water and raw sewage nearby. Those are the lucky ones. Girls without parents sleep next to strangers.
Soccer was what they decided would keep them alive, and after Panama’s generous offer of a week’s worth of training, just two months after the earthquake, the Haitian teens found themselves facing their first opponent, the U.S. team. They needed three wins to qualify for the world cup. The first two losses meant they’d be going home to nothing.
Many Hearts, One Goal
Gretchen Keehn is the mother of 16-year-old starting goalkeeper, Heaberlin.
“My daughter went over and said good job to the other team. Then there was all of the press and the ‘Hug Felt Around the World.’ It touched my daughter in such a way.”
Then there was the ESPN video.
“Since that, my daughter can’t let go,” says Keehn.
Bryane and her fellow teammates have since created a power point presentation to solicit funds, airline miles and host families for Haitian players. Bre’s Foundation will be a nonprofit with the goal of bringing the 24 members of the Haitian U-17 team to the U.S. for two weeks in July to compete in the Disney International Soccer Tournament at the Wide World of Sports in Orlando.
The Clearwater Chargers soccer training club in Clearwater, Florida appears willing to help, so does Disney.
Keehn says, “I’m 41 and I’ve never felt this way about anything. I’ve always felt ‘We’ve got to help Americans first.’ ”
Keehn describes her daughter as a typical 16-year-old whose eyes have been opened by soccer. First there was a trip to Argentina in December when she realized not everyone lives like Americans. Now the Haitian experience.
“We are hoping that this vacation from their country will be a terrific way for the Haitians to remain together through the sport that has brought both countries together, soccer,” says the mission statement, called Many Hearts, One Goal.
Eventually, the team would like to help with makeshift homes so the girls don’t have to sleep on the ground.
“Whatever we do as a family can be modeled by other teams across the country,” says Keehn.
Mission Statement: Many Hearts, One Goal
“Our mission is to bring the hope of a better life and the hope of a mended country to Haitians through the game of soccer. We believe that by giving these girls the chance to play in this tournament, they will learn that they are capable of doing incredible things and that there is still hope for their lives and the life of their country.
“These girls realize that their society is in need of people who are willing to mend the broken country and broken hearts. By giving this team an opportunity to reunite, we hope that they will rekindle a spirit of potential and a spark of pride in their country, friends and families.
“The same concepts that these girls have learned through soccer, such as teamwork, dedication, and perseverance, will equip them to face the challenges of their current situation. As we have seen countless times, sports have brought countries together amidst great turmoil. Likewise, our goal is to provide these girls with the confidence to show their people that there is hope not only for Haitian soccer, but for the devastated nation of Haiti.” #