Improving the World, Little by Little, Through Soccer and Love
At 28, Kelsey Sullivan is fearless and determined, but she always has a twinkle in her eye. After graduating from Dunn School in Los Olivos, she went to Ghana as a volunteer for the Right To Dream Academy, a residential international school that offers scholarships to talented young soccer players drawn from all over West Africa. There she met eleven boys from Sierra Leone who had been sponsored by the then fledgling Craig Bellamy Foundation (CBF), started by Welsh soccer player Craig Bellamy who, after seeing the devastating conditions in which these kids grow up, resolved to educate them through their love of the sport. "Something about those Sierra Leoneans resonated with me," Kelsey recalls. "They're honest, direct, and a little bit cheeky. I'm like that too. I was just drawn to the kind of energy they have." Today, she is the primary sponsor, advocate, and den mother to fourteen young men from Sierra Leone who are living, playing soccer, and attending high school in the Santa Barbara area. It's been quite an adventure.
A versatile athlete who has played soccer, run track, boxed, danced, and, as a child in Wyoming, was a dog sledding champion, Kelsey's talent and temperament were a good fit for the program. She came home briefly after her volunteer stint, worked in a bakery in Solvang, and thought about things. She knows there are kids in need everywhere, but you might as well start somewhere, and she knew she had an affinity for the people of Sierra Leone...and soccer. When she learned that CBF needed an English teacher and wanted to start a girls' league, she went to Sierra Leone. Jumping in and figuring it out as she goes is her characteristic strategy, and it seems to work for her. She has a sunny, optimistic nature, but she is also hard-working, persistent, and resourceful.
“We look at maybe 4,000 kids, and ultimately whittle it down to sixteen,” says Kelsey. “For the kids who are chosen, it’s huge. They get to live in a dorm with three meals a day, running water, electricity, and the only grass field in the country except for the national stadium. But it’s not just athletics. Education is a big part. We give them five-year scholarships and we see how they progress. After a couple of years we start to see who our stand-out leaders are and who has really strong character, and they might be chosen to come here to California.”
“When we went to recruit, we learned that there was no formal league in Sierra Leone where we could find these boys, so we started a Youth Soccer League with help from UNICEF, and now we have a girls’ league as well. And there’s more involved than the games. We have a point system that takes into account wins and losses; fair play; community projects, and school attendance. If you win games, you still have to go to school.”
Dunn School, Kelsey’s alma mater, has been especially receptive to the CBF boys who make it to California. Seven will be starting this year, and Dunn's first CBF graduate, Sahid, will be attending college at Loyola Marymount. There are also two boys at Cate this year, and two at Laguna Blanca. The students have full scholarships, funded through a mix of endowment funds and private donations. They play club soccer, which sometimes leads to interest from colleges. “Hopefully some will play pro, and some will get degrees, and we’ll see where it goes,” says Kelsey. In 2020, when this current group graduates, she plans to move back to Sierra Leone and open up a girls’ version of the program.
The Cate boys are boarders and the rest of them live with Kelsey in a house that she bought–it’s simply what she chose to do with money she inherited. “I’m the only adult, just me and the boys, and I had to create this part. Some people think it must be strange, or challenging, but actually it feels good. I am working with kids who know how lucky they are to be here, and they are appreciative. The first year, we only had one boy, Sahid, the one who is going to LMU this fall, and it was just the two of us in the house. I was twenty-four, and he was fourteen. How would this all work? Neither one of us really knew, but it was interesting for us to navigate. To this day, I still have these hours-long conversations with Sahid. He’s been good about explaining a lot of the cultural things. He’s taken on that role. We teach each other.”
“There are always little things…like one boy went to take a shower, and after he’d been gone for forty-five minutes, it turned out he didn’t know how to turn it on. Or how do you use a microwave? Another boy had just arrived, and on his second night, all the smoke alarms went off…we had cooked chicken, but it was Ramadan, and he had been fasting, so he was trying to re-fry the chicken at four in the morning, but he didn’t know how to do it. The house was filled with smoke.”
“Honesty is what works for us. We’re all gonna make mistakes, but we just talk about it. It’s the same for me learning things culturally. Being a woman taking charge—I know that’s been an interesting change for a lot of the boys. But they make fun of me too. They call me Chelsea when I get mad. ‘Oh, Chelsea’s out.’ And as a group, it turns out we’re the most competitive people in the world. A card game, whatever, everyone wants to make a bet, everyone wants to win. It’s always a competition. And that’s fun too. I like that. I thrive on it. I’m in.”
“I never get tired of watching them play. Someone is always training, every night, and I sit and watch. They’re so great to watch! Their personalities come through. You can see this is totally their space. They’re having fun. And that’s my Zen time, just sitting there and watching them practice.”
“This year we have three Christian boys and the others are Muslim. We figure God is God, whether it’s a mosque or a church or a house. We pray before dinner together. We share. One boy, Musa, was in class last year and a classmate was repeating what he’d heard on the news or whatever about Muslims being really violent and things like that, and Musa said, ‘I’m Muslim. I’m not like that.’ And for that kid, it was eye opening. They have this safe space to interact, articulate thoughts and share with honesty. Everyone comes away with a better understanding.”
Kelsey goes back to Sierra Leone each year to get the boys, and when she talks about the place and its people, her love is palpable. “It’s actually hard to come back here afterwards,” she says. “Whenever I go there, I feel refreshed, simplified, clear-headed. All the things we worry about, you can’t worry about there. It’s just basic needs. To get something done, for example, takes twice as long, maybe three times as long, as you would expect. They call it African time. So what you can accomplish here in maybe two hours can take three days there. But what’s the hurry anyway? So it takes a long time to do things, but then you’re more relaxed and clear. Then I come back here, and everyone is rushing around. And I take the boys to Costco. You want cereal? There are like 700 choices. It’s overload.”
“Traveling can be hard. They question me when we travel, so I take the guardian papers everywhere we go. The visa process is a monster task every time. You never know what makes a difference or when someone is going to be denied and why. It doesn’t get any easier.”
“Eventually you’re there, and as soon as you leave the airport, there’s all this poverty, right in your face. But the place is honest, it’s raw, it’s colorful, and it’s friendly. I like talking to people. Everything is a story. I love that part of it. And there’s always an adventure with every single thing you do. Something always happens.”
“You wouldn’t think that in the face of so much poverty and sadness, you would find the kind of hope that the people there have. One of the fathers sells newspapers in Freetown. He’s the happiest, nicest man I’ve ever met. He works so hard, he has so little, but he’s so happy and grateful for life. You see a guy like that and think, ‘What have I got to be unhappy about?’ Maybe I’m missing the point. So I feel refreshed. It gives me hope.”
Kelsey seems uniquely qualified for the mission she’s undertaken. All her strength and spirit and distinctive Kelsey-ness has been channeled into it. She is also quick to acknowledge teachers, family members, friends, and others who have helped her along the way and are there for her still. She is refreshingly modest, never claims to be an expert, and laughingly admits when she's puzzled. She doesn't much like to be in the spotlight, but she agreed to do this interview because she is proud of the boys and wants their stories shared. You can learn more about the Craig Bellamy Foundation on their website: craigbellamyfoundation.org
“If you find what breaks your heart, then you find your passion," Kelsey says. "I read that someplace, and it’s true for me. We have so much, so many opportunities. How can we share? What would bring communities and cultures together? That would help the world so much. The dialog, the learning experience, even just to have a real conversation, so much learning can happen! For me, it breaks my heart when you can’t do that. So how can I bring these things together? I found my exact purpose. This is what I was supposed to do, and I just keep plugging away. It will fall into place. The good things will come.”