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New Haven immigrant family finds soccer bridges gaps, opens doors

By Mary E. O'Leary, New Haven Register, Conn.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

April 20--new haven -- A love of soccer has brought together a New Haven woman and a West African family fleeing war-torn Liberia that has changed the lives of both.

Lucky for the Bartoahs, Lauren Mednick, 30, takes the idea of volunteerism to a new level.

Mednick, with a small group of friends, has mentored 11 boys on the soccer field and after school on their academics, using the sport as a way to engender confidence that has seen all of them now, seven years later, attending college as freshmen and sophomores.

The young men, whom she has worked with since they were 11- and 12-years old, are either refugees helped through Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven, or the sons of refugees assisted by the agency.

Among them is Abraham Bartoah, who upon leaving a refugee camp in Guinea and before that having fled to the Ivory Coast, showed up in New Haven in 2005 with two other brothers, Andrew and Moses, and his mother, Musa Dahn, to begin a new life.

Abraham got his first taste of America at the East Rock Magnet School on Nash Street where Mednick was teaching in an after-school program tied to IRIS.

Recruited to play soccer at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts her freshman year, Mednick loves the game and has continued to play in adult leagues and volunteers to help youth groups.

That spring, when she first met the Bartoahs, she got them and another boy she knew through IRIS, Mu'ammar Camara, involved in a recreational co-ed soccer team for fifth- to eighth-graders.

"They were phenomenal. We were undefeated. I think our worse game was an 8-0 victory," Mednick said.

When the program was scheduled to be eliminated the next year, she knew she wanted to find a way to keep them together playing soccer.

Just appointed director of New Haven Youth Soccer, she agreed to take that job only if she could start a spinoff team for the IRIS kids, which is how Elm City Internationals came about.

"Our goal is to really find our kids strengths and really find the resources for them. We do work a lot one on one with them on academics, mentoring and college counseling," Mednick said.

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Mednick and her friends would get together with the 11 boys for an hour and half of soccer practice a few times a weeks, particularly from November through April, followed by two hours of tutoring on school work. The boys had access to phone numbers and emails to their mentors and often the school help was one on one or in small groups.

"They could make an appointment at any given time during the week to get personal help on whatever assginment they needed help with," Mednick said. She estimated she put in about 20 hours a week on the program in addition to working either full-time or going to graduate school at New York University where she got a masters in international education policy.

Each spring, Mednick said they would send the kids to more elite teams.

Under this arrangement, Abraham, Andrew, Mu'ammar and Shemar Nesbeth got to play with the South Central Premier Academy team, which is the highest level youth soccer league, one of about 58 in the country.

This way, they would get to travel around and be seen by college coaches, Mednick said. "All of these teams come together as showcases. It's really a way of exposing our kids," she said.

"We are not experts in every area, particularly in soccer, so for someone like Abraham, his current coach (at Monroe College in New Rochelle) said he could go professional, I'm not the right coach," Mednick said as she sat in the CFC Arena in Hamden, an indoor facility where many of the leagues play.

All of this has paid off and Abraham, now 19, has just been recruited by Manhattan College in the Bronx, where he will play Division I soccer for its team, the Jaspers, this fall.

"When I first met Lauen, everything changed for me. It really impacted my life, my school work. She helped me a lot getting in touch with coaches, getting trials with them," Abraham aid.

Playing soccer as a kid in Liberia was fun, he said, but "it was not organized like here where kids wear uniforms and cleats. We played with friends in the street," Abraham said.

Abraham is one of two players with full scholarships to college. He has an athletic scholarship to Monroe, a junior college, where he is now finishing his sophomore year with a 3.0 grade point average. Another boy got a full academic scholarship to Santa Clara College in California.

Mednick said all the boys in her program had good grades in the New Haven Public Schools with 3.0 and above GPAs, but their SAT scores were too low to play Division I soccer.

Four of the boys now are at Sage College in Albany, another junior college. Sage is Division III junior league, while Monroe is Division I junior league.

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Mednick said having four there has made the transition for them easier even though in terms of ability, they are probably Division I and II players.

"Most of our kids could play the high level college, but the goal wasn't really to make them professional soccer players," Mednick said. "It was to use soccer to have them succeed in the rest of their life and I think they see that and they made that personal choice," she said.

The exception is Abraham, who in addition to succeeding academically, performs the sport at a whole different level.

"It is a passion that keeps him motivated in life, but it is also something he can attain," she said.

Mednick is now working part-time as a tutor for homebound students in Hamden so she can plan the next iteration of Elm City Internationals.

She said the current 11 weren't challenged enough in school and found the level of writing expected of them in college daunting.

To this end, they will add about five extra hours a week of supplemental work and implement a new reading and writing curriculum year round. Last year, they also started a book club where they read together, with the first book, "A Long Way Gone: Memories of a Boy Soldier," by Ishmael Beah, having a particular relevance.

Mednick is looking for about $150,000 in grants for the proper staffing, insurance and equipment to start a new cohort of seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders in the fall and then the following year bring in fifth-, sixth, and seventh-graders so they would follow a group of fifth-graders through college level.

Mednick said it is impossible to expand beyond the dozen students they had and continue on a volunteer basis. Still, it won't be a huge program with 12 to 15 the first year, then a dozen more in the second year and five or six after that.

She said the older kids can act as mentors to the new recruits.

They will also continue raising money for scholarships to fill the gaps between what the colleges are giving the boys. Through private fundraising, they have been able to give out between $2,000 and $10,000 in awards each year.

The solid group of volunteers she has depended upon include Gene Bertolini, Noah Czamy, Amy Neale, Matt Neale, Andre Keefe and board member Karin Render. She said they tried bringing in college students, but they weren't reliable.

The volunteers are friends of hers from the community with a love of soccer who got hooked on the program after forming bonds with the boys.

"I will say this from the bottom of my heart, and I think most of the kids would portray the same sense of sentiment -- it is really more of an extended family at this point," Mednick said.

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Early on it was evident that Mednick would be working with kids who needed extra help. She started a mentoring program in Springfield, Mass., when she was in college for at-risk, middle-school girls. The next year, she had to choose between staying on the soccer team or continuing the program. She picked the program, but still played for fun.

Abraham will be in school through July but will also play for a semi-pro team in New Rochelle this summer, the Westchester Flames, before reporting to Manhattan in August.

Musa Dahn, 52, mother to Abraham and Andrew, doesn't dwell on the 11 years of on-again, off-again civil wars in Liberia, which were known for the horrific recruitment of child soldiers. She came to New Haven after two years in a camp in Guinea.

She is looking ahead and pleased that her sons, who include two older boys she was able to send for later, are all in school.

"I like that. At least they get to understand themselves. They get to know their right, they know what's wrong," Dahn said in her apartment in Fair Haven.

She credits Mednick with that outcome.

"I really appreciate her effort. She is really the one who made them want to go to college right after high school. Don't go to work first. Maybe if it was I alone telling them, they would not listen to me, but with her effort, it was very good," Dahn said.

Mednick keeps in touch with the 11 boys at least weekly, and they and the other volunteers see each other at holidays.

"I cry almost every day thinking of their accomplishments. It's really amazing to be able to see these kids turn into young men. It is so cool when they come back to see the really amazing things they are doing all by themselves," she said.

Abraham said simply.

"She is one of the best people I have met. She is one of the good people," he said.

___

(c)2014 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.)

Visit the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.) at www.nhregister.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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