Eric Lopez wants to offer Senegalese runners the same opportunities he was afforded as a kid.
Lopez, a teacher in Johnston, helps run the Academie Sportive Senegalese Pour La Relance De L’Athletisme – or the Sports Academy for Revival of Track and Field in Senegal. Lopez used to run track himself, advancing to a handful of African championships during his peak from the mid-’70s through the ’90s.
He knew the struggle of growing up in Senegal, and he remembered how important running was for him. The stadium was a safe haven where he could enjoy the company of friends and mentors while doing what he loved.
“For me, track was my place where I used to go and I felt safe,” Lopez said. “This is the place where there was an adult I could talk to. This is the place where I could laugh with my other friends and we could challenge each other because of our physical abilities. The young kids in Senegal, over 50 percent are below 20 years old, and we have many kids who can have the opportunity of using this way to spread out in the world, to become somebody.”
He was previously featured in the Beacon Communications newspapers for leading an initiative centered on donating used iPads to the academy, but Lopez received a call recently that left him feeling he had to do more.
He heard the story of a runner who received $2 to take the bus, but instead of spending it on transportation she saved the money and walked from the stadium back to her house to help cook dinner for the family.
It’s a story that Lopez said is all too familiar, as some runners arrive for practice without shoes or wearing plastic substitutes. He has sent some money back, but the athletes needed more assistance. That led to the inception of his Sponsor Zone website, which allows people to sponsor a runner from the Joan of Arc Athletics Club in Dakar for $20 per month for an entire year.
“She’s having problems with just the basic, basic needs, but also there were a lot of issues that were going on because when they brought her in, they promised her that she was going to go to school, but they didn’t pay her school,” Lopez said of one runner. “So I called a friend of mine, and I explained to her about this athlete, because she’s a big champion. She told me, ‘OK, no problem. I’ll give you money to pay for her to start school.’ Then I called some of my friends, we’ve got to help the team.”
Lopez said that the transactions are “totally transparent” to make sure that all the funds donated are going directly to the runners and team. The website explain that either a general contribution or sponsorship will go toward an athlete who “lacks the resources to access training, further education and often basic needs like proper nutrition and rest.
“The goal is to give the hope of life to youth in Senegal, West Africa, one child at a time.”
Lopez initially asked for a list of four athletes, for whom he quickly found friends willing to offer financial support. The roster of runners seeking support began to grow as Lopez saw interest increase, and coach Marcel Damado began generating more excitement within the team when he told them about the campaign.
“I talked to one of my friends, we ran together, and he was like, ‘Dude, we’ve got to help our coach.’ When I was running track, he was not getting paid,” Lopez said. “This guy would give us everything he had, so much so that I would go with him to his house and his wife would tell him, ‘Hey, we need this and that,’ and he’d be like, ‘I don’t have anything.’ He gave everything to us. We’ve got to help him out.”
Lopez said he has received a hand from RhodeRunner in Providence. The local running store offered to donate shoes to his runners who are often forced to wear inadequate footwear, a gesture Lopez graciously accepted.
“Instead of running with no shoes or wearing plastic shoes running, they would rather run with new shoes. They would cherish that,” Lopez said.
Lopez said there are a couple of senior runners enrolled in the program, but most are kids equivalent to sixth- through eight-graders in the United State. The sponsorships go a long way for them, as Lopez noted $40 converts to more than 20,000 CFA Francs in Senegal. Just being able to afford a bus pass is a “big deal” as it keeps the runners safe, and it allows them a comfortable ride to the stadium Lopez once knew as a sanctuary himself.
“We have many kids who can have the opportunity of using this way to spread out in the world, to become somebody,” Lopez said. “This is who I was as a young kid growing up, knowing about the world, because education, you can have it sitting down in a classroom, but also you can have it a lot traveling around the world and seeing things, that experience. You don’t learn it in school, but it’s large.”
Lopez is spreading the word on social media and looking to expand the base of donors t
o expand the base of donors to give the kids the same experience he relished. Those interested in joining the effort can visit https://sites.google.com/view/sponsor-zone/home.
“I have friends that call me from everywhere, ‘I was on that team, I need to help you,’” Lopez said. “We need 48 sweatsuits, we have two more for coaches, so that’s 50. I have people who give me money to actually buy a few of them so far, and that’s one of my challenges — to make sure that this year, this is the only team in Dakar who doesn't have sweatsuits. This is the Joan of Arc team, before it was mostly just Christians who were on that team, but now the name is something big and you were the best. You had everything, but now that’s the team that has nothing.”