Athletes and teams hold a powerful position from which they can enact and drive social change. A growing number have chosen to support educational initiatives in their hometowns, providing learning opportunities that can make a significant impact for children from otherwise underserved communities. Think LeBron James’ iPromise School in Cleveland, or the Dodgers’ work in Inglewood and elsewhere in Los Angeles.
At Beyond Sport’s Beyond Innovation event in L.A. late last year, I met another name to add to that list: Soccer player Mike Lahoud.
Born in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, Lahoud won an NCAA title with Wake Forest in 2007 and played seven seasons in the MLS before joining the United Soccer League in 2018. He has also represented Sierra Leone in World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations qualification matches. But he considers one of his greatest achievements building a school called Education for All in the Allen Town neighborhood of Freetown.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. Being a professional athlete has given me such an incredible platform to make a difference at home and abroad,” Lahoud explained. “With Education for All, we are finding ways to connect the kids at our school to the innovative and changing world.”
Education for All was constructed in partnership with Schools for Salone, an organization that has built 22 schools and three libraries in villages across Sierra Leone. According to Schools for Salone, Education for All was the first school built in Allen Town. When it opened in 2015, it was an elementary school serving 50 children. Now there are a total of 402 students, spanning preschool through middle school.
Education for All aspires to leverage sport to drive interest in education and to challenge local stereotypes. Mamusu Tarawalie, the school’s headmistress, believes Lahoud occupies a unique platform to do that.
“Mike has been an inspiration to the students and teachers of the school from the very beginning. They are all so grateful for the support that he gave to make the school possible. [Soccer players] are so admired in Sierra Leone—and they are honored and incredible grateful that he has chosen to help uplift children to achieve their goals and dreams—especially girls and women,” Tarawalie explained in an email. “Some people just give money, but Mike helped make a school possible where children can learn, can improve their skills and become someone great. What Mike has done is wonderful and is helping to make a better Sierra Leone for everyone.”
Schools for Salone founder and executive director Joseph Lamin is also now a member of parliament for Sierra Leone’s Bo district. That connection has been crucial to Lahoud’s efforts to develop a science, technology, engineering and math education at Education for All, since school curriculums and focuses are set by the country’s Ministry of Education.
“Through Joseph’s involvement in the newly elected government, our school has become one of the early adopters of STEM-based learning in Sierra Leone, thus aligning ourselves with the government’s new initiative to promote more STEM-based education throughout the country,” Lahoud explains.
The next goal for Lahoud is to use Education for All as a blueprint to improve the education system across the entire country. Sierra Leone remains one of the world’s poorest countries. According to the World Bank, its gross domestic product per capita was just $4,085.11 in 2018, and the United Nations Development Programme reports that its human development index, a composite of life expectancy, education and per capita income indicators, was just 0.413 in 2015. Education in general, but STEM education especially, will be critical to raising its status and profile in the world, empowering the nation’s children to dream big.
“These are exciting times for Education for All. Our school started from humble beginnings, and now serves over 400 students throughout the outskirts of Freetown,” Lahoud says. “It feels like things are really coming together to make greater impact on our students and their families. I look forward to seeing the new ways in which STEM can play a role in all of that.”
Jesse Lovejoy is the Director of 49ers EDU and the 49ers Museum. He’s also Managing Partner of EDU Academy, which was created to help organizations understand how to harness the power of sport to introduce STEAM education programming. In his free time, he hangs out with his wife Stephanie, daughter Vivienne, and their two rescue dogs, Buster and Lucy, and nerds out on different ways to inspire young learners.