Tony Sanneh is arguably the greatest soccer player to come from St. Paul — and Minnesota. But it's what the former member of the U.S. National Team has done since leaving the pitch that may make the most lasting impact.
In 2003, while still playing professional soccer, he created the Sanneh Foundation, which works with young people in and out of school to improve their physical, emotional and social development. The foundation's work really took off in 2010, after Sanneh retired from soccer and began leading it full-time.
Eye On St. Paul recently got Sanneh to sit still for 17 minutes to talk about his foundation and its work helping young people realize their dreams.
This interview was edited for length.
Q: What is your most vivid memory from soccer?
A: My most vivid memory of soccer was during the National Anthem of my first World Cup game. I looked up and saw that my mom and a lot of friends came to support me. But also thinking back and reflecting on everybody that was there for me. It was that one moment where me and every supporter connected, showing the world we reached our goal together.
Q: What prompted you to start the Sanneh Foundation?
A: My mom was a social worker for 42 years, so I guess I grew up watching her support people. My dad's from west Africa. I went to visit when I was little, and I saw the way that community was built — where everybody picked you up off the ground. Everybody spanked you and everybody hugged you. And so I knew that I had a responsibility to do something.
It was really building a network where I could build relationships. It started with a focus on soccer but then it became, how do I build an organization built on developing relationships?
Q: Tell me a little about the services the Sanneh Foundation provides.
A: We have our Dreamline program. We invest in the staff member and the student. Sowe work with a staff member and put her on a path to get her master's where she doesn't have to go to school outside of work time and doesn't have to go to work during school time. And the whole time, she's supporting kids in our schools and our academic system.
In the summertime, we run free sports camps. We hire about 150 high school kids, and Monday through Thursday they teach sports. And Fridays are workforce development days, so we'll visit the 3Ms, the U.S. Banks, the Atomic Datas and just do career exploration and leadership development with them.
We also have the Conway Community Center. We did a $12 million revitalization of that area — the biggest dome in Minnesota. We have a tech center.
And out of that came our food program. We fed kids [at Conway] and during COVID we started to have people drive up. Well, that line got long. So now we have a nutritional services program where we do about 3 million pounds of food a year and we serve food six days a week throughout the Twin Cities.
We also have a housing initiative. We do anti-discriminatory training in sports. [And] we have a Girls First initiative where we invest in our young women, to empower them in sports.
Q: How did you choose those areas?
A: We didn't [mean to] get into the food business or the housing business. But we look at community differently. We looked to do things that were going to enhance what we were already doing. We had to look at expanding the services and support system that we were offering our staff. So that's kind of how it grew. And also in 2018, we won the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation award in making communities healthier. So if you think about what we do, we're not the Band-Aid. We're trying to keep people from falling.
Q: How many people do your programs reach?
A: A lot. With our food program, we're now looking at a couple hundred thousand people. We have over 100,000 visitors at Conway now. And we service, between the schools and anti-racism [program], 25,000 kids. So the reach is getting bigger.
Q: Ten years ago, did you see this?
A: People always say to me, "Did you ever imagine?" And I say, "If you've got a couple extra hours, I can tell you the full plan, but you're going to call me crazy." I think big. When you think about the size of the issue, what we're doing is not a lot. There's a lot of room for growth and expansion and improvement. We also look for partners that we really value.
Q: How do you choose partners?
A: You look at some organizations and you say, "With our support, they could be doing twice as much more."
Q: What other areas of Minnesota are you looking at right now?
A: We're looking at Austin. Moorhead. Mankato. Duluth. Different regional hubs that holistically we can work with their school system and summer programming.
Q: For a kid in one of your programs now, what is your goal?
A: My goal for the kids is for them to feel like they have the support to reach their dreams. My mom told me that when I was a little kid, I asked, "Do you think I'm going to be anybody?" And she told me I could be anything I wanted to be. The reason why I was able to do it was I had a support system behind me. I believe our biggest asset in this world is our kids. If we invest in them, they're going to change the world.