Six years ago, Sam Shapiro's family adopted a 15-year-old boy from Cite Soleil, Haiti. A few years later, in June of 2015, Shapiro wanted to learn more about where his brother grew up, so he visited his brother's hometown.
When Shapiro returned to Minnesota, he told his friend Jack Moe about what he had seen in Cite Soleil, located outside of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital.
What Shapiro saw was a city of just over 8 square miles where 100% of the population lives in poverty. Fully 70% of households, according to the nonprofit Helping Haiti, have no access to a working latrine; an open canal system is clogged with waste. He saw homeless children with no access to education, activities or safe spaces to play.
He also saw a rundown, abandoned basketball court.
Shapiro couldn't fix everything. But he could do something.
"I thought athletics could be used to give kids opportunities for organized activities that could keep them off the streets," said Shapiro, of Edina.
A year after his first visit, Shapiro returned to Cite Soleil with Moe. The next month, Shapiro and Moe — then 16-year-old sophomores at the Blake School — formed a nonprofit, called Sprint to Cite Soleil, to benefit the city's youth.
The core program of Sprint to Cite Soleil's work is basketball, but it also incorporates nutrition and community-building to benefit children ages 5 to 18.
Plus some fun swag.
"Our mission originally was to provide a new basketball court," said Moe. "But we soon realized that a lot of kids wanted to play basketball, and more than just a court was needed. We sent jerseys, basketballs, basketball pumps and shoes. Hundreds of kids showed up for a clinic."
They soon hired 10 coaches and four cooks to prepare nutritious meals for the 160 boys and girls who train every Saturday and Sunday; it's often their only meal of the day.
And they hired director Joseph Sadrack, a Haiti native, whom Shapiro calls "trustworthy and right for the leadership position in Haiti."
From the start, Shapiro, Moe and Sadrack have agreed on how the program should develop.
"We are very much a partnership," said Shapiro. "Personally, I've seen a lot of organizations trying to help in foreign countries. They have a U.S. mind-set and want to do things their way.
"I'm not living there," he continued. "I don't know what they need. Before any decision is made, we ask Joseph, 'What can we do?' And, 'What do they need?' "
Now sophomores in college — Shapiro at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and Moe at the University of Colorado — they continue their work as co-presidents of the nonprofit.
The program currently has operating expenses of $2,000 per month — $1,550 of that is for staff and food.
Shapiro said it's been a rewarding experience.
"I'm proud that, despite the somewhat-of-a language and culture barrier, we're able to communicate," said Shapiro. "Overall, [I'm proud] that others believe in us and trust us. That's what we're most proud of. Being able to create it and maintain it.
"I don't know if 'pressure' is the right word, but knowing that kids and people in the program are getting something is a big part of wanting to continue this."
Moe agreed. "When we first told people about this, they told us to be cautious. We take so many things for granted here. This experience has really changed my perspective. I stay in contact with the kids. I'm on Facebook and messaging these kids daily."
For more information on the program or how to donate, visit sprinttocitesoleil.org.
Joel Rippel • 612-673-4719