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Finding hope on the soccer fields of Haiti

By Kathleen Toner, CNN
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CNN Hero: Patrice Millet
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
RELATED TOPICS
  • Haiti
  • Haiti Earthquake

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (CNN) -- Five years ago, Patrice Millet learned he was in the advanced stages of a rare bone cancer. A stem cell transplant was his only hope for survival.

The businessman from Haiti underwent the procedure in the United States. After nine months of treatment and recovery, his cancer was in remission. Millet returned home in May 2007 determined to start living the life he'd always wanted: helping children from Haiti's poorest slums have a brighter future.

"Every day you see so many kids in need -- so many bad stories, tragic stories," said Millet, 49. "All my life, I wanted to do something good for my country, for the kids. (So) I said, 'This is the time. I have nothing to lose.' "

That summer, Millet sold his construction supply business and started a program called FONDAPS, which stands for Foundation Notre-Dame du Perpétuel Secours (Foundation of Our Lady of Perpetual Help). The program uses soccer to help children stay out of trouble and learn valuable life skills. Millet calls it "education by sport."

"I want the kids to be very good citizens," he said. "In soccer ... you need to give, you need to receive, you need team spirit, discipline, sportsmanship. ... It's not all about soccer, it's about life."

Millet started by focusing his efforts on children from Solino, one of Port-au-Prince's most dangerous slums. But going into the neighborhood to recruit young participants was risky.

"My wife didn't want me to go. She said gangs (would) kill me." But Millet was undeterred.

"I said, 'I'd rather die doing something good than die in bed.' "

While Millet was first greeted with suspicion, he was eventually accepted by the locals and children flocked to join his program. Today, hundreds of children have benefited from FONDAPS.

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Soccer programs for children are rare in Haiti, and players generally must pay to participate. In Millet's program, the equipment, uniforms, shoes and training are all free for participants. He also pays the transportation and entry fees for players to compete in soccer tournaments.

"When you live in the ghetto, you don't see the world outside," he said. "I try to bring hope for them, ... to show them that (their) life is not only the reality."

Before the earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010, Millet's program had expanded to three neighborhoods and involved more than 600 children, including more than 150 girls. But the quake devastated Solino and halted FONDAPS' momentum. One of the children in the program died and many lost friends and family members.

"When the earthquake came ... it became harder for the kids," Millet said. "Now, most of them live in tents. ... They have to fight for everything."

Two of the three fields where Millet had held soccer practice became large tent cities. His remaining field is located on the outskirts of Port au Prince -- too far for many of his former players to walk. But about 200 boys still make the journey. Millet believes that the difficult times have only increased the need for his work.

"In Port-au-Prince right now, there is almost no soccer field," he said. "It's very important for a kid to play. ... I try to give them joy, give them their childhood."

The children, ages 9-17, practice five days a week. And Millet often arranges games on Sundays.

"When they win, they are happy and they know that it's because they worked hard for it. ... That is the message I want to tell them," said Millet. "Sometimes you win, sometime you lose. ... But this is the way you win in life."

Since many of "his kids," as he calls them, lack father figures, Millet also acts as a role model and mentor. After practice, he and the other coaches regularly talk with the boys about what's going on in their lives. Millet constantly stresses the importance of education to them, and at times dips into his own pocket to pay their school fees.

"They don't have to steal ... or (join a) gang. They know that they can do something. They know they can believe in themselves," said Millet.

While FONDAPS is basically a one-man operation run on a shoestring budget, Millet is always looking for other ways to help his players. Usually once a week, participants receive packets of pasta, rice and beans to bring home to their families. He is also working on getting a bus to transport children to practice, and he hopes to one day establish his own school with athletic fields and programs in music and art.

Despite the challenges to keep his program going, Millet is not lacking in motivation.

"To see the joy in the face of a kid ... and you know what he's living (through) ... that makes me happy," he said. "It's so wonderful to see the progress they make in soccer, in their own life, in everything."

For Jeff Fouvant, Millet's program has been a lifeline. The 11-year-old lost his father in the earthquake and is living in a tent with 10 family members. Fouvant's entire family depends on the food he receives from FONDAPS, and Millet also pays for his school fees.

"Mr. Patrice ... he helped us a lot," said Fouvant. "He is a hero."

In 2009, Millet's cancer returned, but he's treating it with medication. He recently spent several weeks in the U.S. undergoing radiation treatment, but he insists that he's feeling good. Though cancer is a reality that Millet can't escape, he said he's happier now than he was before his diagnosis. And he's determined to do as much as he can with whatever time he has left.

"I realized how important life is, every moment," he said. "I am not ready to die yet. I have many, many things to do."

Want to get involved? Check out the FONDAPS website at www.fondaps.com and see how to help.

 
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