As Lawrence Olum tells it, he shouldn’t be here.
His path to the United States and Minnesota United included a wealth of fortune, and then some. The journey began for him as an 18-year-old in his hometown of Nairobi, Kenya, where Olum was playing street soccer.
A college coach happened to be watching, and he saw talent. After the coach confirmed Olum graduated from high school with good grades, Olum was offered a full-ride scholarship to Missouri Baptist University. It was the twist of a lifetime for a kid who had only dreamed of going stateside to get an education, not for soccer.
But where Olum is now — an eight-year MLS veteran, a key member of the Loons and two years into a foundation he started to provide support to his youth in his homeland — is no accident.
“Luck can get you through it all,” Olum said. “Then it’s hard work and everything else that keeps you going.”
To this day, Olum, 34, gives thanks for the chance encounter. It’s why he started the Lawrence Olum Foundation two years ago, seeking to use education and sports to help other kids in Kenya achieve a “moment” like his.
The foundation’s main goal is to provide kids with an education, no guarantee in rural Kenyan communities. Sports is merely the supplement, a means to find noteworthy students. Kids who show promise in school and the three sports the foundation focuses on — soccer, basketball and volleyball — are identified. Then Olum and the foundation support them through scholarships or other means, such as getting them in front of coaches, just like that one day in Kenya.
Olum himself was fortunate growing up in Kenya in a middle-class family. He was able to seize his “moment” to come stateside, but only because his grades were good enough. That’s why Olum places an emphasis on education through his foundation, because some of these kids don’t have a real shot at school.
“It’s pretty much what I tell the kids back home,” Olum said. “When you’re playing soccer, you never know who’s watching. The thing is, you have to do the right thing for the right guy to see you and the right opportunity to happen.”
Olum has been giving back since his days at Missouri Baptist in suburban St. Louis. After a season wrapped up, he would ask his college coach, Jared Embick, for any piece of surplus gear. Whenever he flew to Kenya, he brought home boxes full of equipment for his community. Once he hit the pros, the quality and quantity of stock he sent home improved.
After years of support, Olum established his foundation officially in February 2017. A few close friends aided him, including former college soccer teammate Marcus Kelcher.
Kelcher, technical director of Elite Girls Academy based in Omaha, is on the board of Olum’s foundation. Olum sought someone like Kelcher, with his soccer background, to assist on the financials, logistics and, occasionally, even some soccer gear.
“The one thing about Lawrence is he’s obviously a very talented soccer player, but Lawrence is a far better human being,” Kelcher said. “Anything I could help him and his work over there, I wanted to try to do that.”
Second time in Minnesota
Olum played for the USL side Minnesota Thunder in 2009, then returned this year, signing with the Loons in March. While he didn’t play much to begin the season, he started and logged 90 minutes in the past three games for United, including the U.S. Open Cup victories over Kansas City and Houston.
As he adjusts back to life in the Twin Cities, Olum plans to develop more connections for his foundation. He also hopes to host local events to raise funds and awareness soon.
It helps he knew Loons coach Adrian Heath coming in. The two were together at Orlando City in 2011 during its USL days. Once Heath knew Olum was available, the coach said he jumped at the chance to add the midfielder to United.
“Not only is he a great guy and a great teammate, he’s a really good soccer player,” Heath said. “I don’t see why he can’t play for at least the next couple years.”
Taking a chance
Olum’s trek back to the Twin Cities is a far cry from when he arrived at Missouri Baptist. Embick said he was “skeptical” of Olum at preseason practice his freshman year; he said the feeling was natural, considering he had never seen Olum play.
But Embick trusted his contact, a fellow coach who had seen Olum play, and decided to offer the scholarship.
“When you’re at an NAIA school, a small one, sometimes you take chances,” Embick said.
Olum hopes his efforts will help motivate kids in Kenya to work and position themselves to replicate his “moment’’ of being noticed.
“I was lucky to get that opportunity and have everything work to be able to come here,” Olum said. “Then everything else is up to you.”