Cité Soleil is full of a lot of things, but hope is not one of them.
There’s the fetid smell of smoldering trash. The deafening noise of jets landing at the airport nearby. The piles of cement rubble, some even older than the historic 2010 earthquake. And the tents — scores of blue-and-gray tarps clustered among the ruins.
The neighborhood is one of the poorest and most violent in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Armed gangs used to rule the streets. Many residents lack running water and electricity. For as many as 400,000 residents, there is only one public school.
Fifteen-year-old Renaldo has gotten used to these bleak surroundings. Since the earthquake, he’s lived in a crowded one-room tent with a dirt floor which he shares with his mother, stepfather, 13-year-old sister and 3-year-old brother. After he saw his home collapse and his friends die in the deadly tremor, he became more aggressive and refused to obey rules, his mother said. He ran away often, and she worried he’d become like too many young men in Cité Soleil: a violent criminal.
“I wasn’t comfortable because I wasn’t at home,” Renaldo explained. “I was scared.” In response, he now acknowledges, “I disrespected everyone around me.”
Passion for soccer is foundation for change
But Coach Franz required respect. He’d lived in the neighborhood his whole life and knew Renaldo through an uncle.
Franz invited Renaldo to join Moving Forward, which Mercy Corps started in Cité Soleil after the earthquake. The program uses sports to give vulnerable children a structured environment in which to work through trauma and develop life skills.
In Haiti, hardship is everywhere you look. But so is something else: soccer. Kids play barefoot on any open ground they can find, passing around wads of garbage or empty bottles if they can’t find a ball. Moving Forward harnessed this passion to keep kids like Renaldo on the right track.
“Coach Franz showed me not to be angry,” said Renaldo. “He encouraged me to be a better person, to listen to those around me, to be patient. He made me realize why I need to do well in school.”
Lessons about health are contagious
Now Renaldo is also learning how to tackle another urgent issue in Haiti: HIV. Along with Partners in Health, Mercy Corps’ Soccer for Life program brings together children from all areas of Cité Soleil to learn the concepts of healthy living and HIV prevention through soccer drills and tournaments. The program, which began last December, has turned Renaldo into a role model for others — even his mother.
“I always talk with my friends and my family about what I’ve learned, that having a lot of partners is not good, that you can protect yourself from HIV,” he said.
“Renaldo has truly changed my life,” said his mother Gabrielle. “He’s always telling me to be safe and think ahead, that I don’t need to have another baby when things are so hard. He also reminds me why everyone needs to think about preventing HIV. Mercy Corps is changing the reality of Cité Soleil by changing Renaldo and the children who live here.”
Renaldo still stays away from his tent as much as possible — but only to play soccer with his friends. These days, he makes a point to help with chores like gathering water and watching his little brother. He said he now works hard at school and wants to become a civil engineer.
“I will follow all the lessons that Coach Franz has taught me,” he tells his mom often, “and one day, I will build us a new home.”