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Soccer—a universal language

Left to right: Jeff Coppins, BJ Flora, Ben Hale, John Branisa, Emery May, Conor Sloan, Sean Langan, Brendan Weigley, Connor Hubbard. In front: Max Fisher, Jeff Fann, Cole McLagan.

When choosing among spring break options, few college sophomores are likely to sign up for a week of manual labor, icy showers and playing with schoolchildren who don’t speak English in a country still reeling from a massive earthquake.

Team Haiti working at one of the orphanages near Port-au-Prince.

But for 10 Furman men’s soccer players, the choice to spend their March break near Port-au-Prince, Haiti, serving at orphanages was clear. “Obviously, it’s hard to give up a spring break, but once we decided to do it, we were all in,” said business major Cole McLagan.

The plan had been brewing for a couple of years through Furman head coach Doug Allison’s association with trip organizer and friend Rick Slagle, a “father figure” for the team. A previous mission to Mexico involving former player Marco Ortiz ’16 had fueled the idea to take a trip as a team.

So with commitment from Team Haiti, Slagle and Jeff Coppins, development director at Back2Back Ministries, the group began to make the trip a reality. Business and accounting major John Branisa and Jeffrey Fann (health sciences) did their part by successfully raising $1,800 per person through a letter-writing campaign to alumni, friends and family.

On the island of Hispaniola, the team worked with Harvest Care Children’s Home and another local orphanage where virtually all the children’s parents perished in the devastating January 2010 quake.

The team visited a hillside memorial for the 2010 earthquake where 125,000 Haitians are buried in mass graves.

The magnitude 7.0 quake was the strongest to hit the region in over 200 years. Claiming upward of 300,000 lives and displacing another 1.5 million people, the temblor reduced to rubble homes, schools, hospitals and government buildings.

Chaperoned by Slagle, Coppins and a third soccer friend, BJ Flora, the Furman team spent the first part of the day on projects like breaking up large rocks with sledge hammers and pick axes to create a pathway. They also worked on a foundation for a chapel and built a clean water system for one of the facilities.

Then, mustering even more energy and strength, the team spent the latter half of each day building other things—like relationships.

Said Fann, “The person who grabbed my hand in the beginning became my best friend—no matter what I was doing, he was right behind me playing soccer, jump-in, jump-out and other games.”

Many children communicated with the team members through the power of touch. Despite the language hurdle (Haitian Creole), unspoken messages of support were delivered through service, soccer, eye contact and the simple act of holding a child’s hand.

Physics and applied math major Max Fisher said the highlight of his week was being called “Pwason,” Haitian Creole for his nickname, “fish.”

The young men spoke about the “universal language” that is soccer. Business major Emery May recounts time he spent with Stanley. “It was cool to see how the game of soccer can help create a relationship. He would grab one of the balls we brought and start kicking it around with us. He could play all day.”

Team members and children at local orphanages became fast friends.

What surprised politics and international affairs major Conor Sloan was how much the mission changed him. “In America we tend to associate happiness with the attainment of materialistic things,” he said.

“One of the older boys, Diackenson, brought out a pair of shoes to play soccer with us on a gravel field. Instead of putting both shoes on, he shared one with another barefooted child. Diackenson didn’t need the shoes for happiness, he just needed his friends.”

For health sciences major Sean Langan, the impact of the trip was “profound.” He said, “The thing that stood out for me was how happy and generous the kids were. They had very little, but they made sure all the team members had fresh coconuts and they didn’t take any for themselves. We went to serve them, but they ended up giving back to us.”

At first, politics and international affairs major Connor Hubbard said the problems in Haiti appeared insurmountable until he witnessed things up close. “I was overwhelmed with how helpless it seemed. But when we saw the orphanages, it was cool to see God’s light shine in those little kids’ faces. Ministries like Back2Back really do make a difference in individual lives.”

As for returning to Haiti, the invitation from Back2Back is open. Said Coppins, “I would take these boys back any day of the week.”

Coppins, a longtime friend of Furman soccer, applauds Allison’s philosophy. “It’s way more than soccer and wins and losses for Doug. He wants to develop young men who will go out and make an impact on the world. It’s about building a program with kids who come through it with character. That means something.”

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