- Associated Press - Sunday, April 19, 2015

PITTSFIELD, Mass. (AP) - For nearly all their lives a group of six friends and city youth soccer players have had the privilege of playing on a proper soccer pitch, with formal uniforms and shoes, in professionally regulated matches.

In April, the teens will be transported to a place where they won’t know the language, where the rules of engagement are ever-changing, and where the playing field is anything but level.

Haiti is a nation of the barest of resources, but rich and deep is the passion and cultural spirit for the sport they call “fútbol.”

“Here you’re so used to so much structure and organization to the game,” said Pittsfield High School sophomore Jackson Rich. “But there, they don’t have the resources or the equipment or anything. They have to make do. But when they’re out there playing, they’re loving every minute of it.”

Rich, who traveled to Haiti last January, enlisted his friends to join him on the journey back there during the spring school recess. They’ll be volunteer coaches through the Housatonic-based nonprofit, HotFutbol - “Hot” being an acronym for “health, opportunity, and training.”

Joining Rich on the trip led by HotFutbol President John Evans will be PHS juniors Jamie McMahon and Jamie Rosiello; PHS senior Angela Petretta; and St. Joseph Central High School juniors Nico Terpak and Michael Peplowski.

Founded in 2007, HotFutbol is formerly known as Konbit Football Ayiti - “konbit” meaning togetherness. Its mission has been to use soccer as a vehicle to improve the quality of life for kids and coaches in Haitian communities. KFA was in fact the brainchild of a then 16-year-old Pittsfield native, Nick Whalen, who found support in building the organization through Evans, a soccer coach who also works as a psychologist for Berkshire Country Day School.

In 2009, the organization changed its name to HotFutbol. Evans and his wife Elena are the helm, steering the program along with a board and a hired an eight-member Haitian coaching staff supported by volunteers.

The work of HotFutbol is done in a continuing urban zone of the capital city of Port-au-Prince known as Delmas 33. HotFutbol works with a grassroots committee there, leasing a field in Park Izméry, an iconic part of the Haitian political landscape in its own right.

Named after the brothers Antoine and George Izméry, wealthy merchants who were in the 1990s, during the rule of a bloody de facto military dictatorship, brutally assassinated for their continued support of a democracy and then-ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

After the deadly, devastating 7.0-magnitude 2010 earthquake, the flat of Park Izméry was occupied by Haiti’s countless homeless and injured seeking refuge in the emergency tents erected there. Around mid-2011, Evans recalled, the park began to clear as people finally were able to relocate to more permanent homes. Eventually, it was converted back to a recreational space which HotFutbol began to lease in 2012.

In January of 2014, to organization started a co-educational after-school soccer program at the Park Izméry, which is open and available to all children regardless of their skill level, economic situation, or gender. Evans said the Pittsfield students will spend three days working with anywhere between 180 to 200 children between the ages of 6 and 14, running skills-building clinics and working in the mornings with the Haitian coaches.

“It’s hard work they’ll be doing,” Evans said.

“I’m just looking forward to passing along the love of the game and teaching them the skills that will help them go further with it,” Michael Peplowski said.

One lesson becoming apparent to the students is that of the disparities between the haves and the have-nots.

Evans said it takes about $50,000 a year, in addition to the in-kind donations of equipment and uniforms, to keep the program up and running. HotFutbol relies on grants and monetary donations.

Jamie McMahon and Angela Petretta have already begun to pitch, baking and collecting more than $500 in cookie sales to benefit the program. On Friday, Balderdash Cellars in Pittsfield held a wine tasting fundraiser to support the students. On Friday, April 3, the Arizona Pizza Co. on Pittsfield Road in Lenox will sponsor a Dining-to-Donate event, with a portion of the proceeds of the day’s dining sales going to HotFutbol.

McMahon and Petretta, the two females in the group, will also have the opportunity to serve as role models as the HotFutbol program has recently begun extending its outreach to enroll more girls in the program.

All HotFutbol participants must be enrolled in school and pass each of their courses to remain in the program. The children and their families are also expected to help sustain the program through doing field maintenance, community service activities, and maintaining equipment and uniforms.

“Prior to now, a lot of girls were expected to stay home and work in the home, while boys were favored to go to school. But there’s been a little bit of a cultural shift,” Evans said.

“I remember being in soccer camp when I was younger and there being fewer girls than boys and boys not wanting to pass the ball to the girls,” said McMahon. “I want to be a part of that cultural shift to show these girls that they can play too.”

Another perception the students are working to shift is that which their friends, family members and other have about Haiti.

“Haiti is a much misunderstood country in terms of danger, which I by no means ever want to underestimate. It’s like any other city. But as outsiders, our approach to the culture here is to be useful and helpful,” Evans said. “And I think that’s worked.”

Jackson Rich recalled his first trip to Delmas 33.

“It was sort of a shock when I got there. I’d grown up in a predominantly white area and it was really strange being one of the only white people there,” he said. “But as time went on down there I got more comfortable there and we spoke through the language of soccer. When the last day came, I didn’t want to go.”

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