Even when you're in the business of soccer and make your livelihood playing the sport, there are times when the game takes a backseat.
The recent six-day trip to Haiti by the New York Red Bulls was an occasion when a trip centered on the most global of all sports opened eyes and moved emotions. The tour guide for the trip was none other then Haitian-born Grammy Award-winning recording artist Wyclef Jean.
Haiti is a nation that is struggling for stability, where every day is a delicate balance and merely surviving is an accomplishment. A 2004 coup by a rebel army led to the ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest who had served as president of the nation three times between 1991 and 2004. Violence followed as political anarchy held the country in its grip. Despite the election of president Rene Preval in February of this year, Haiti remains ravaged by instability.
Haiti is considered the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. A severe trade deficit has kept its economy from growing. Approximately 80 percent of Haiti's population lives in abject poverty.
The trip was a homecoming of sorts for two of the players on the trip as Laventure and Jozy Altidore returned to the island of their heritage. "When I saw the slums, it made me think about my parents and what they went through to get to America and do what they do now," a reflective Altidore remarked. "They had to be determined every day to get to where they are now. I give them all the credit in the world and am so happy to know that I am carrying that name."
Now, it was Altidore, the boy who made good, who came to the tiny Caribbean nation as a hero. Coming off an impressive rookie season, Altidore appears a near lock to be one of the two forwards in Bruce Arena's scheme for next year and figures to play a prominent role with the U-20 national team this coming summer. "I think I see what it is really like around here," noted an introspective Altidore. "I am very proud that I got to experience this because now I have a better perception of the Haitian people and the country as a whole."
The purpose of the trip was more then a media and public relations blitz by Red Bull into an emerging soccer nation. The three Red Bulls players -- midfielder Seth Stammler joined Altidore and Laventure -- oversaw the donation of soccer equipment for Yele Haiti, the charitable organization started by Wyclef Jean. In many ways, the trip was an eye-opener for Stammler, who saw a side of Haitian life not depicted in the media: "The people are very resilient, there are a lot of struggles down here but everyone tends to look on the bright side, everyone is smiling all the time, they love to laugh and have a good time. It really helped me realize to not take things for granted back in the States and really be appreciative of what we have."
Yele Haiti will use the donated items from the Red Bulls to continue building its soccer program. Aimed toward young children, the program offers leagues and camps to the nation's poorest citizens -- its young people. It was a program that touched all the players, as Laventure noted: "Being able to play soccer with the kids here was a very eye-opening experience. ... It was an awesome experience and I hope I can come down here and do it all over again."
Perhaps most humbling for the Red Bulls was the time the team spent in a Port au Prince detention facility for youth. It was an emotionally draining experience for the three teammates, who went behind barbed wire fences and prison walls. The Red Bulls rubbed shoulders with children as young as 10 who were spending their youth in what amounted to a prison.
Despite their confinement, there was an outpouring of emotion from the young detainees toward their visitors, who in turn spent time kicking the ball around with their hosts. No greater love was shown than that for Altidore, the youngest member of the traveling party. "When my name was introduced you could see the smiles on their faces. They are so proud when a fellow Haitian does well," said the Red Bulls striker. "It meant so much to me to know that I have their support."
Stammler, for one, walked away from the trip a changed man, appreciating the benefits of his U.S. citizenship and upbringing. "It makes me very appreciative and grateful of everything I had growing up in the States," said the midfielder who just completed his sophomore season in MLS. "It makes me want to give back a little bit more than I have in the past."
With a new perspective on life, Altidore, Laventure and Stammler came away from their trip with something more valuable then the gifts they brought down to Haiti.
Kristian R. Dyer covers U.S. Soccer and MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He appears regularly in the New York City newspaper Metro. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.