MAKING CONNECTIONS: Members of the Konekte traveling party take a break during their trip last month to Haiti. Konekte (which means “to connect” in Haitian Creole) is a Princeton-based organization formed to develop educational initiatives in Haiti. The group sent 22 people to rural Haiti in mid-July to further Konekte’s goals and strengthen the organization’s ties to the people there. The traveling party included several local soccer coaches and the group used the game as a means of promoting goodwill. Pictured, from left, are Vesco Marinov (Princeton Football Club coach), Stoyan Pumpalov (PFC), Anne Hoppenot, Esmeralda Negron (Princeton University women’s soccer assistant coach), Brian Ruddy (PFC), Hristofor Tsochev (PFC), and Pastor Michel Valentin.
Dr. Paul Farmer has gained worldwide acclaim for the development of his Partners in Health project that has provided free treatment and medicine to the impoverished in Central Haiti.
For Stuart Country Day School French teacher Anne Hoppenot and her colleague, Madelaine Shellaby, hearing Dr. Farmer speak encouraged them to make their own impact in Haiti.
“I went to a Sacred Heart conference two years ago and met Paul Farmer,” said Hoppenot. “I was inspired by his work. I wanted to do something for Haiti, the country has been very poor for a long time.”
Hoppenot and Shellaby decided to start their own organization, “Konekte” (which means “to connect” in Haitian Creole) to develop, fund, and implement educational initiatives in Haiti in partnership with local communities from a base in Princeton.
“The main goal is connecting through education; we are both educators,” said Hoppenot, noting that the Konekte website, http: konekteprincetonhaiti.wee
bly.com/ provides more detail about the organization.
“We are helping with schools, raising money to pay teachers. We are helping build a vocational school and start that program. We also want to help small businesses in the area.”
Last month, Hoppenot led a group of 22 people from the Princeton area, ages 15 to 52, to rural Haiti, east of Port au Prince, to further Konekte’s educational goals and strengthen the organization’s ties to the people there. The main purpose of the trip was to help with the construction of the vocational school near Fonds Parisien. In addition, the traveling party organized craft activities, passed out hygiene kits, and participated in religious services.
In addition to the service activities, Konekte used soccer as a critical means of forging ties with the Haitian people.
The Konekte party included four coaches from the Princeton Football Club (PFC), Stoyan Pumpalov, Vesco Marinov, Brian Ruddy, and Hristofor Tsochev, together with Princeton University women’s soccer assistant coach Esmeralda Negron.
“Haitians and soccer are one; we played everywhere we went,” said Hoppenot, a PFC parent whose three sons, Pierre, Antoine, and Maxime, have all gone on to play college soccer.
“We went to the villages and played soccer. Sometimes we took kids and did training. Sometimes we did scrimmages. We organized the first Konekte soccer tournaments with four teams competing.”
In Hoppenot’s view, the soccer coaches made a huge difference, on and off the pitch.
“The PFC guys were great; they were such good role models,” said Hoppenot. “They were great with the kids, they had a good sense of humor. They were such great sports. They participated in everything. They worked hard but had fun at the same time. Es (Esmerelda Negron) took the girls. They don’t get to play much and they related so well to her.”
For Negron, the journey to Haiti was unlike anything she had ever done before. “I know that Anne Hoppenot sent an e-mail to our program detailing the trip and what it was about,” recalled Negron, a 2005 Princeton alum and former soccer star who joined the Tiger women’s coaching staff last year.
“I got in contact with her and said is there room for me? I have never been on a trip like that; it is definitely something I wanted to do. I wanted to see a third world country and share my passion for soccer.”
Negron enjoyed tapping into the passion for soccer displayed by the Haitian children.
“I worked with the young girls,” said Negron. “I look forward to any time I get an opportunity to work with young girls. It is good for them to see a role model and have goals to aspire to. I began with ball drills but the language barrier made that tough. I started to just jump in and play a 5-on-5 pick-up game. The girls really loved it.”
Negron loved the chemistry that developed among the Konekte traveling party.
“It was a phenomenal experience; it was a very eclectic group,” said Negron, noting that the Konekte people stayed at the Peace and Love Hotel in Fonds Parisien which had no air conditioning or hot water.
“There were some high schoolers with their mothers; there were four other soccer coaches and myself. There were college kids. It was a strange mix but everyone got along really well.”
Being on the same page came in handy when the group put in some hard labor, helping the Haitians construct the vocational school.
“I never participated in a lot of construction or heavy duty yard work,” said Negron, noting that one day of the trip involved 12 hours of transporting buckets of cement to help complete the roof on the vocational school.
“It was rewarding to see what we accomplished as a team. Before we left, we finished the roof. I felt like we made a difference. Everybody was inspired to help in any way possible.”
Negron, for her part, was inspired by the power of soccer to bring joy to people beset by poverty and still reeling from the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country.
“In the village of Canes, people were living in mud huts with no running water,” said Negron.
“They had to walk 45 minutes to get a bucket of fresh water. They had no food on hand. We played a pickup game there and all the people were excited. They got lost in the game; I saw the passion for soccer despite their situation.”
Pumpalov, a former Bulgarian soccer pro and the PFC head trainer and director of programs, was not surprised at how the sport fostered good will.
“In the game of soccer the language is the same,” said Pumpalov, who had the PFC donate cleats, jerseys, t-shirts, and balls as part of the effort.
“The kids were good at following directions; there was some talent there. Every time we went back, they were looking forward to seeing us again. We left a lot of stuff with them after the sessions, they really needed it.”
The American kids on the trip impressed Pumpalov with how they pitched in.
“Those kids will take it for rest of [their] life, they got life lessons,” said Pumpalov. “There is no way you can teach that in a classroom. I was extremely happy with how the kids responded on the work site. The most difficult lesson to teach in coaching is getting players to stay committed and not give up. They learned that from the work site.”
While Pumpalov has seen a lot in a soccer, having competed for Bulgaria’s U16, U18, and U21 National Teams before embarking on a pro career and playing 450 games in Bulgaria and Malta, he was taken aback by what he witnessed in Haiti.
“It was a completely different experience for me,” added Pumpalov. “I have been in a lot of places in the world but this is something I never experienced before. We went to places where it was just a shame to see how they live. I want to go back and help those people.”
Hoppenot, for her part, came away from the trip feeling a deeper bond with the Haitian people.
“The Haitians were so welcoming and appreciative,” said Hoppenot. “When you want to help someone, it is great to feel a connection. It was very touching and very moving.”