Julio Tsasse, the founder of Kids in Cleats, had a mission to “become someone” so that he could return to his hometown and help his community. And Julio did just that. Through practice and play of soccer, Julio earned an opportunity to leave his hometown of Cameroon, Africa, to train at AS Monaco Youth Academy and play soccer professionally in various locations of the world, including Mali and the United States. But Julio’s mission went beyond the sport of soccer. Using both his talent and story, he found a way to give back to his community through founding Kids in Cleats. Read on to learn more about this Montclair-based nonprofit helping children succeed through the sport of soccer.
About Kids in Cleats
^ Julio + Erica
In 2018, Julio began a collaboration with Erica Gerstman, a founding member of the nonprofit, to create a mission to help children rise from poverty through sport, education, and self-empowerment. Kids in Cleats became a registered nonprofit in 2019. The Montclair Girl spoke with Erica about the beginnings of KIC, the impact of the pandemic on the nonprofit, and how you, and even your child, can get involved in supporting the organization.
Kids in Cleats focuses on using soccer to help children rise out of poverty through education and self-empowerment within their environment. The nonprofit covers yearly tuition for school as well as food security. The relationships established with soccer academies and programs allow the organization to provide young people with the best tools for success and future growth in both sport and education.
The Montclair Girl: Can you share the origin and beginnings of Kids in Cleats?
Erica Gerstman: Julio was my son’s goalkeeper coach and upon returning from a family trip to Africa, we started discussing Africa and the many opportunities for US citizens to help there. Involvement in a philanthropic organization offered a great opportunity to help teach my children how to be good global citizens.
During my discussion with Julio, he mentioned he was in the infancy stage of starting his own organization in his home country of Cameroon. That conversation was the origin of the idea for Kids in Cleats. We started understanding what each other felt passionate about in regard to providing lasting change, and we found ourselves with a very specific and lofty agenda.
MG: What is the mission behind the organization?
EG: The mission is to use soccer as the vehicle for children to rise out of poverty through education, self-empowerment, and sport in Cameroon, Africa. It is our hope that for the players who are good enough, we can utilize our relationships with international scouts and have them place our players into European Youth Academies. This will further their growth and provide many future opportunities. For others, we are hoping that we can help them to receive scholarships to European or US universities to continue playing soccer and gain an education at the same time.
Last, for those with a different path, we are committed to paying for local apprenticeships so that they can gain employable skills. It is our belief that if this happens, and each of these players returns to help their communities much as Julio does, entire communities can rise out of poverty and have greater hope for the future.
We will be doing our best to create self-empowered young people with great soccer skills who will return one day and continue the cycle of helping those still struggling in their home communities.
MG: KIC goes beyond the sport of soccer. Can you share your other goals, including taking steps for access to clean water and job opportunities in Cameroon?
EG: We will achieve our vision while developing solutions to the bigger issues, such as access to education and healthcare. Each of our players will have their school tuition paid for by KIC.
We will also be providing nutrition counseling to our players and have health seminars on a monthly basis, which will include healthcare workers teaching safe sex practices as well as a focus on female reproductive health and general understandings of the mind-body connection.
Another major health issue for Cameroonians is access to safe and potable water. In urban areas, only 58% of the population has access to improved sanitation facilities, and the rate in rural areas is just 42%. This led us to dig, install and cap a well in our facility so that not only our players but also their families can rely on us to provide clean water for them.
MG: You provide an opportunity for young people to support KIC through your Young Ambassadors program. Can you share more about how this development came about?
EG: This is one of our favorite parts of the organization. In fact, when we first visualized this organization, much time was spent figuring out how we can make it a “kids helping kids” initiative. We are constantly trying to show and teach our children about helping others, empowering ourselves, and being grateful for the privileges we have. We felt that one way to put these lessons into practice would be to provide local children and teenagers with a hands-on opportunity to learn how meaningful and fulfilling it is to be an agent of change while being able to witness how their hard work is making a tangible difference on the soil in Cameroon. In our opinion, our Young Ambassadors are our most inspiring advocates of KIC’s mission.
In order to be part of our YA program, each applicant needs to reach out to us and send in a short paragraph as to why they would like to be part of our mission. Julio and I then get in touch with them and their parents to discuss our mission behind KIC for the youth of Cameroon as well as the responsibilities of being an ambassador, which focuses on being an advocate for the nonprofit through word of mouth and social media.
MG: Kids in Cleats is based in Montclair. How has working with and within our community shaped the organization?
EG: Montclair is a fantastic and generous community. At every corner, it seems that someone is trying to make a difference and working hard to make the world a little easier for someone else. This type of environment encourages you to think big and push to try to make real changes in the lives of those that are struggling. Living in Montclair also makes it much easier to find people that are eager to help in some way.
MG: What have been the most rewarding aspects of running KIC? What has been the most challenging?
EG: One of the most rewarding moments was meeting the children from the village on our first official KIC trip to Mbouda, Cameroon in the summer of 2019. While we were there, we hosted a tournament for all of the local teams and gave each player a full uniform and cleats, and seeing how excited the players and their families were to be receiving such items was priceless.
I also loved seeing all of the players wearing uniforms and cleats that were donated by our neighbors here in Montclair and surrounding towns. There is something about facilitating a global connection between our young players and the players in Cameroon that is very rewarding. We can make such a huge difference in the trajectory of their lives and being a part of that really feeds the soul.
The biggest challenge is, of course, fundraising and finding ways to bring awareness to the public about who we are, who we are helping, and why we are working so hard to help them. Julio and I are both pretty impatient people, so having to wait to get things done because of the lack of finances has been a huge learning curve for both of us.
MG: The pandemic shifted gears for many local organizations and businesses. How has it impacted the nonprofit?
EG: It has definitely made it impossible to have large in-person fundraising events and difficult to plan for future events. The pandemic has also made it difficult for speaking in person with local businesses and community members about KIC. With that said, we were lucky that we were able to pivot and continue to raise awareness about our organization through social media.
We were even able to run a local outdoor soccer clinic for 2 to 7-year-olds in the spring and a week-long soccer camp in the summer. This allowed us to introduce ourselves to many local families, but we needed to get creative just like every other nonprofit and for-profit organization.
MG: How can people get involved?
EG: We welcome any sort of help, including suggestions and donations. Our website has multiple links to specific types of programs and events people can run or take part in, and we are always thrilled to speak with anyone who asks about our mission and how they can get involved.
MG: What are you most looking forward to in terms of the future of KIC?
EG: We can’t wait for our field to finally be grassed and to purchase equipment, so we’re currently trying to raise funds for both. Our hope is that our security wall around the field will be complete and ready for use by December of this year. Once this is done, we can create our first two teams, one girl’s team, and one boy’s team. When we feel secure that the program is running exactly as we’ve wanted, we look forward to having many more teams in the future.