Soccer for Social Change

Jeff DeCelles had typical expectations of his semester abroad. He would study, make some friends, travel, and learn about another culture. As it turned out, DeCelles’ 2001 trip to the Dominican Republic would be a life-altering experience for him and three other UVM students, and a memorable one for the people of a rural Haitian immigrant community.

DeCelles’s real journey started with a soccer ball. After arriving in Santo Domingo and discovering baseball was the sport of choice of most Dominicans, an affection he didn’t share, DeCelles started hanging out with Haitians in the nearby Batey Libertad community who shared his love of soccer, or futbol. It wasn’t long before the Haitians, who had very little training in the fundamentals, asked DeCelles if he would coach them. DeCelles, a high school soccer player, started soon after being asked.

DeCelles says the players worked in rice fields all day for miniscule wages, and then found the strength to play soccer. The Batey Libertad settlement is home to about 1,000 Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans, who are discriminated against within the country and suffer from extreme poverty. The town has a high rate of HIV/AIDS infection and a life expectancy of just less than 50 years.

So the purchase of cleats, goals, and shirts was out of the question for the villagers, many of whom played in bare feet on rock-strewn dirt field. So DeCelles wrote a letter to a contact in Maine at Olympia Sports asking for help. The company responded by sending socks, shin pads, cleats and other equipment.

“I thought we’d get a soccer ball or two,” DeCelles says. “After we got the equipment we started playing against Dominican teams, which had never happened before [because of the cost and racial tensions]. The Dominican teams wouldn’t play against Haitians because they didn’t have shirts or cleats. It was an economic barrier for them until we got the equipment. ”

A Happy Return

DeCelles eventually had to leave, but made a return trip the following year with UVM student Oriana Campanelli. Both were surprised to see that the men’s team was thriving, and that a women’s team had sprung up as well. The students were surprised because the women of the community were saddled with heavy household responsibilities in addition to their work in the rice fields.

“Not much attention is brought to them except in the household,” Campanelli says. “Soccer is the only outlet they have. It’s very empowering for them. They play in dresses and the guys whistle at them. But they love it so much and they have so much heart. It brought a whole new meaning to soccer for me.”

In addition to coaching, Campanelli got more equipment, including sports bras, with the help of UVM soccer player Sara Jablonski. Men’s soccer captain John Antonucci Jr., and Eric Brown, who was on the UVM team as a first-year student, also made trips to Batey Libertad and helped supply the team.

“Once I started telling people about it, a lot of the guys from the team started to drop off old cleats and equipment,” says Antonucci, who convinced other local organizations to donate equipment while working at the Shelburne Supermarket.