Tony Sanneh’s lifelong journey to empower youth, enrich communities
When soccer star-turned-CEO Tony Sanneh was asked, “Who are you?” he responded with an emphasis on being a community-minded African American man. When Sanneh was out on the field scoring goals for the U.S. national team, it was unimaginable that he would one day be driving a semi full of popsicles and delivering them to kids. However, that popsicle experience became a reality.
Sanneh’s soccer career began when he was just 6 years old. He found his love for soccer in the streets of West Africa. There, visiting his dad, Sanneh learned the only way to meet other kids was to go outside and play. So, that’s what he did.
Upon returning to the United States, he told his mother about his new interest. In turn, on her way to her job as a social worker, she would drop him off at local parks and rec centers, where Sanneh would spend his days playing soccer. From there, he grew up to be a professional player who still holds the record as the all-time leading scorer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Additionally, he is one of only three players to play every minute of all five games at the 2002 World Cup and the man who started in 10 out of 11 appearances with the U.S. Men’s National Soccer team.
When his soccer career ended, Sanneh wanted to create something where he could use his connections to “build relationships with youth.”
In 2003, The Sanneh Foundation opened with that goal in mind. The mission of The Sanneh Foundation is to “empower youth, improve lives and unite communities.”
Sanneh wanted to use soccer and his fame to open as many doors as possible, but he also hoped people would see The Sanneh Foundation as moving beyond a game of soccer.
Sanneh explained how today, soccer is less than 10 percent of the organization’s budget, while the rest is spent on creating and sustaining the after-school education programs, the community center, and food and nutritional services.
Soccer was the gateway to creating a nonprofit; in 2018 The Sanneh Foundation won an award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that honors athletes who have made significant strides in assisting communities achieve health equity. Sanneh said that as the foundation grew, its services evolved into operating as a community health organization.
“Whether it’s education, economic stability, access to food or even racism in the social context, we look at how they all tie to community health,” Sanneh said.
The foundation maintained its operations during the pandemic, and Sanneh believes it strengthened its relationship with the community.
“COVID helped define the importance of having a responsive organization that was really built to serve community needs,” Sanneh said.
During the pandemic, the nonprofit adapted into the area of food distribution. Pandemic restrictions prohibited program participants from entering the building, where they would normally have access to food.
The workaround the foundation came up with was to distribute food to the participants as they waited outside in their vehicles. As word about the program spread, people who were not familiar with The Sanneh Foundation joined the line of waiting cars. At times, the lines stretched nine blocks long, which meant staff often needed to go get more food. Within six months, The Sanneh Foundation evolved into a full-scale food distribution network.
Sanneh seems too humble to admit it out loud, but foundation Vice President Dawn Selle was quick to share how Sanneh “will do anything and everything for everybody,” even drive that semi full of popsicles. More significantly, Sanneh shared he doesn’t just teach the kids: they actually teach him.
“No matter where you go in the world, there’s nothing more valuable than a kid’s smile,” Sanneh said.
Ways to help: donate or volunteer at thesannehfoundation.org/giving/.
This story was written by ThreeSixty Journalism’s summer 2022 News Reporter Academy high school students. The Academy and its theme of holistic health equity were supported by Center for Prevention at Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota, which connected students with story topics and sources.