When Ali Andrzejewski decided to start a soccer camp in Belize, she encountered resistance from male coaches, who bluntly informed her that she could only work with girls for 30 minutes on half of the field the boys would use.
But the More than Fútbol founder refused to relent and worked with the girls for an additional 90 minutes. And the next day, the coaches’ attitude toward her had shifted.
“They said, ‘Do you think you could do what you did with the girls with the boys today? Could you teach them a couple of those moves?’ ” she recalled. “So then we went over and worked with the boys, and for the rest of the week, we were with the boys and the girls, and we got a lot of respect from the men who were running the program, that we really did know what we were doing. That was a really good step for us.”
More Than Fútbol, a campaign that combines soccer with education and empowerment in Belize and Nicaragua, is the realization of a vision formulated by Andrzejewski. The 34-year-old McDonogh graduate was a two-time Maryland Player of the Year for the Eagles and a standout midfielder at Maryland and Loyola Maryland, but said she has been refreshed by her work.
“It’s turned into a really awesome program that’s helping the kids do better in school and giving them an outlet for a lot of their energy in a safe environment to be in, rather than out in the streets or facing some of the difficult hardships they have in their lives,” she said.
The program is a welcomed respite for some of the children, who live in abject poverty. Suzannah Block, who has made four trips in the past three years to Belize for the organization and will return in January, said some students said their career objective is to deal drugs because it is one of the few ways to make money.
“I didn’t even know what to say,” said Block, an 18-year-old Towson resident who is a freshman defender for the Goucher women’s soccer team. “I just looked at the teacher, and she told them, ‘No.’ It’s so heartbreaking to hear that stuff, but to be able to tell them, ‘Oh, you guys can do this,’ they get so excited.”
Andrzejewski was inspired to start the program in Nicaragua after she went on a missions trip there as a junior with the Greyhounds in 2004 and “loved it.” She started Champions Soccer Training in Timonium in 2005 and decided to launch a similar program in Nicaragua, in association with Iglesia Luterana de Nicaragua “Fe y Esperanza,” three years later.
The Rev. Dr. Claudia Soliette Lopez Ortega, a pastor with the church in Managua, Nicaragua, said her congregation has partnered with Ascension Lutheran Church in Towson, which Andrzejewski and her family attend. She said Andrzejewski’s outreach meets a growing need.
“We have 32 congregations in different parts of the country, and 90% of them are in rural areas where there is lack of access to food, water, health and education, and our kids have to become grownups very early because they need to start to work at very young ages in order to support their families,” Lopez Ortega wrote via email. “In the middle of this, More Than Fútbol is a life-changing program because it is a great space where the kids can be kids, young can be young, and in this discriminatory society, is inclusive for men and women.”
In 2010, a pastor in Nicaragua approached Andrzejewski about starting a similar project in Belize. In conjunction with the Holy Cross Anglican School in San Mateo, she opened another branch of More Than Fútbol.
In Nicaragua, the organization has run weeklong camps for middle and high school students that concentrate on community and health issues in the mornings and soccer in the afternoons. Three years ago, More Than Fútbol initiated its first soccer league there. In Belize, the organization has offered classes to elementary and middle school children focusing on education and leadership in addition to soccer camps.
In both countries, Andrzejewski said she has encouraged the volunteers who join her to share their work experiences with the children. One, a structural engineer, brought 2,000 straws and helped the children design and build bridges with the straws.
“The theme of the program is to provide life skills and show them soccer can be more than just a game,” she said. “It can be about learning leadership and all sorts of other stuff.”
Despite the outreach’s altruistic objectives, Andrzejewski said gaining the confidence of the people in Belize and Nicaragua took considerable effort.
“Whenever you’re starting mission work, it is really hard to get established because a lot of very well-intentioned and amazing people go on these missions trips and make lofty promises that don’t get follow-through,” she said. “So it took me probably about three years to build that relationship, that we were going to be a consistent presence.”
Jeff Knabe, a marketing director at McCormick & Co. who took his wife, son and daughter to Belize in January 2018, said everything runs smoothly under Andrzejewski. He cited one afternoon when storms washed out any hope of playing outdoors, but within 10 minutes, Andrzejewski had formed an alternate plan of indoor games and drills.
“She’s really unflappable,” Knabe said. “She’s very calm, and it translates really well to those around her, and I believe where it comes from is she has a deep understanding of herself and what she wants to get done with her vision and her commitment to that vision.”
The organization relies on volunteers like Knabe and Finn Council, an 18-year-old Towson resident and Park School graduate who will spend five months beginning in January overseeing operations in Belize.
“I was looking to do something meaningful and something that I would enjoy,” said Council, whose 12-year-old sister Nève trains with Andrzejewski. “So when this was proposed to me — considering that I had an entire [gap] year — the fact that it was this long, it didn’t really faze me.”
Andrzejewski also accepts donations from individual and corporate sponsors to take to Nicaragua and Belize. The students there can convert points stemming from good behavior and grades into soccer balls and jerseys.
Because of civil unrest in Nicaragua, Andrzejewski anticipates that More Than Fútbol will be unable to visit Nicaragua in the winter. But Lopez Ortega, the pastor of the church in Nicaragua, said everyone in the community knows Andrzejewski and hopes she will return again.
“I hope that as of now, God continues to bless our relationship for many more years and that it will last until her grandchildren and mine can teach others to take care of what we have built,” she said.
The feeling is mutual for Andrzejewski.
“More Than Fútbol has become family for me and many of the volunteers that have participated,” she said. “This is why almost all of our volunteers have returned, [and] several have multiple times. I love my Nicaraguan and Belizean family, and I could not imagine my life without them. So I will be doing this until the day I die.”