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Wheeling Native Is Determined As Ever to Help African Youths

WHEELING – In a country where the only news of late has been about the deadly Ebola virus, who would have imagined that a group of youngsters playing soccer – and wearing jerseys from Wheeling Park High School and The Linsly School, among others – would be providing some much-needed hope.

The project in central Africa’s Republic of Cameroon is the passion of Wheeling native Justin Forzano and his supporters. Forzano, 29, a Wheeling Park High School and University of Dayton graduate, has been traveling to Cameroon since 2006, when in college he served with a group of students that developed and built a water filtration system in a village dying from contaminated water.

During his visits to Cameroon, Forzano realized the region’s passion for what we call soccer, and the rest of the world calls football. So each time he returned to the country, he took gently-used soccer equipment collected in Wheeling and from the Pittsburgh soccer community. Dick’s Sporting Goods also has provided assistance to his efforts.

Forzano, who worked for several years in the engineering field in the Pittsburgh area, is now the founder and executive director of the Cameroon Football Development Program. This globally-linked organization uses soccer as a stepping stone for educating young people on a wide range of life-enhancing skills. He also developed a similar program in Pittsburgh, which he now calls home.

Forzano last was in Cameroon in August, where plans were being made for several soccer matches. It was then that he learned there had been an Ebola scare in an area where a match was to be played. While it turned out only to be a rumor, other areas of the country have forbidden any outdoor public events in fear of spreading the virus.

“It was really scary to think (Ebola) was in the community where we had planned to go,” Forzano said. “I’m not so concerned in Cameroon but it is a real concern in the other areas. I have a friend on a medical mission in Sierra Leone where they banned all public meetings including sports.”

The Cameroon Football Development Program provides and oversees weekly educational soccer sessions in 12 secondary schools and community-based programs in eight neighborhoods in Kumba, Cameroon. Forzano has made the rounds of local and Pittsburgh civic and social groups, asking for donations to the cause.

His pleas have not gone unheard. First it was a box of soccer equipment from Wheeling Central Catholic High School. That initial donation grew as word spread of the joy the at-risk youths of Cameroon experienced at receiving the equipment.

“We ended up sending 50 boxes of soccer gear – shoes, balls, jerseys – over there. We were planning a tournament with the competitive soccer league. Every match had a theme or topic,” Forzano said.

When the matches were paired up, Forzano said it was a great feeling to see the players so excited about their uniforms and equipment.

“We had a team with Linsly jerseys and a team with Wheeling Park jerseys playing each other. We sort of recreated the OVAC finals,” Forzano quipped. “We got it on video to show the valley what they are supporting.”

The soccer program serves as a lure to keep and get youths back in the classrooms, Forzano said.

“These kids are living in poverty in a corrupt country. We are giving them a team, coaches, leagues dedicated to helping them have a better future. Our focus is on the social infrastructure through football. The problems are so great. We can’t solve them all but you can do your own small part to chip away at it,” Forzano said.

Forzano’s organization is looking to connect teams in the United States with teams in Cameroon.

“We’re really working to develop a platform, where soccer teams, families and organizations can sponsor a team in Cameroon and watch them. We need sponsors,” Forzano said.

This year, Forzano also is collecting school supplies to encourage the children in the village. Books, especially small novels and teen-related books, are in demand.

“All it takes is one person to impact the whole school and team,” he said.

Visit the website, www.cameroonfdp.org, to learn more and view videos from recent soccer matches, or call Forzano at 304-281-5649.

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