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Wheeling Native Justin Forzano Is Working With Resettled Refugees in Pittsburgh

Photo Provided Justin Forzano, at left, is shown with some of the soccer youth leaders from the Somali Bantu and Burundi communities whose families now call Pittsburgh home, after being resettled as refugees over the last several years. Through soccer, people from different backgrounds are finding common ground on the fields of Pittsburgh.

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Wheeling native Justin Forzano has never been one to let grass grow beneath his feet — unless of course he’s on a soccer field.

That’s where this energetic 30-something has found a calling helping underserved youths learn the sport as well as develop character and leadership roles in their communities.

Those communities reach across oceans from the Republic of Cameroon to the streets and fields of Pittsburgh. Forzano, while an engineering student at the University of Dayton in the mid-2000s, visited Cameroon where he served with a group of students who developed and built a water filtration system in a village dying from contaminated water.

The Americans also interacted with youth soccer teams in Cameroon and saw their need for equipment. Forzano initiated a campaign to seek donations of gently used and new soccer equipment for the African youngsters and returned many times to see it put to good use.

Schools in Wheeling responded generously.

Through his experience in Africa, Forzano created a model for developing soccer leagues in low-income areas of Pittsburgh to give local youths a chance to play the sport and grow in character as well.

A mirror program also is happening in Cameroon.

“We wanted to have a sharp model that would be a franchise in every neighborhood while having an impact on the kids,” Forzano said. “A lot of kids in low- income communities don’t have access to extra curricular activities … parents are working two jobs, can’t take kids to soccer practice and games.”

What has resulted is Open Field, with Forzano as founder/CEO of the Pittsburgh team and a Cameroon team in place led by native countrymen. Open Field’s mission is to “play, lead and inspire.” It’s unique in that it trains young people to lead the various teams and serve as role models for younger players.

The mission is described as follows: “Play, lead, inspire. These three words collectively summarize everything that we are about. They explain the what (play), the how (lead), and the why (inspire). These three words describe our youth-led approach to sport; our uniqueness; and how our youth and supporters inspire us to continue. They connect to our past and shine a light into our future.”

Forzano said when they approached kids in the various communities, they listened to what they wanted. “They said they wanted more competition and wanted to be more involved, have a say,” he said.

The Open Field team took those comments and developed a program that has older teens in the neighborhoods as coaches, referees and organizers. “We give them access to the training, then they’re able to take leadership roles in their neighborhoods,” Forzano said.

Living and working in Pittsburgh, Forzano and the Open Field team have garnered the support of the PNC Charitable Trust, The Heinz Endowments, Street Football World, FIFA Football and others. However, fundraisers are held to keep up with the expenses of operating the soccer programs in challenged neighborhoods. A Taste of Africa event each year receives overwhelming support, he noted. It will be held in October this year.

A charity soccer tournament will be held on Aug. 24 in Pittsburgh. To learn more about Open Field, to register a team or sponsor a team, go online to openfieldINTL.org.

“It’s been a journey,” Forzano said. “What’s next? We want to take it to other communities and other countries. We are looking for partners to expand and give kids this experience.”

In 2018, Forzano was touted as one of Pittsburgh magazine’s most notable 40 under 40 recipients who serves as a role model for today’s youth. That’s not too bad for someone who, not so long ago, kicked around a ball on the green fields of Wheeling.

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