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Travis Richardson, Travis J Photography
Save-A-Thon provides a series of soccer clinics for hundreds of youths in several villages in Nigeria while creating an environment of learning, encouragement and hope.
The impact the collaboration between the kids amongst each other is one of the many reasons what makes the Save-A-Thon special. I started to realize how the kids — not just the African kids but also the American kids — how they’ve responded to this interaction. —Adam Miles, founder of Save-A-Thon

SANDY — Soccer is known as “the beautiful game” as well as “the global game.”

For members of Real Salt Lake Women, soccer is more than just a beautiful and global game, it’s something capable of saving lives, changing futures and inspiring hope in an environment where hope may not exist.

The team will put that credo in action this week when they travel to Africa with an organization called Save-A-Thon, which works to bridge youths in America and Africa, specifically Nigeria, through soccer.

“The idea is that we go to Africa, we bring young American women as the messengers of motivation, encouragement and aid,” said Adam Miles, founder of the organization.

RSL Women, who went to Nigeria last November to lay the groundwork, return on Monday to continue the tournament. On May 9, the Bridges Cup final will be played in Lagos with one girls tournament final and one boys final. During the days prior to the Bridges Cup final, the group will visit schools, hand out donations, including some soccer gear, and interact with the people of Nigeria.

“I’m just excited to go somewhere else and be able to go do whatever I can to help,” said former BYU women’s soccer and current Real Salt Lake Women forward Colette Smith, who will be making the trip to Africa. “I’m not going there thinking I’m going to change someone’s life. I think they are going to change mine.”

The Bridges Cup consists of 32 boys and girls teams (ages 17-and-under) and is part of the Save-A-Thon mission to keep kids involved in sports while guiding them toward a positive future through interaction, bonding and mentoring.

“To give them a pathway that’s different from what they’re on,” said Miles. “That’s what we mean by ‘Saving lives by changing futures’ because you see when you’re in Africa how thin the line is between dead or alive.”

Asked what motivated him to help the people of Africa, Miles said it was when he was part of helping bring a man’s family, which was stranded in the Central African Republic, to America.

“We raised money and we got his six kids and his wife to come and join him. I’ll never forget that moment when his 3-year-old daughter saw him for the first time in two-and-a-half years, since she was six months old. It’s just a feeling you’ll never, ever forget. I cried.”

Over the years, Miles has traveling to Africa to see where these families are coming from. “It’s a life-changing trip.” Years ago, Miles founded Bridges for Africa, an organization that helps reunite African families separated by war, political unrest, famine and other hardships and bring them to the U.S. as well as taking part in service missions to Africa. From Bridges to America grew Save-A-Thon for Africa and the Bridges Cup tournament.

“We started (Save-A-Thon) three years ago with my now 14-year-old-daughter, my co-founder,” Miles said. “For every goal she would save, people would pledge money and we would use that money buy soccer balls to give to kids in Ghana. It’s become a lot bigger for us over the past couple of years.”

Miles recognizes the collaboration between the organization and RSL Women to make the project a success. Having RSL Women involved is a major boost for the organization and for the project.

“The impact the collaboration between the kids amongst each other is one of the many reasons what makes the Save-A-Thon special,” said Miles. “I started to realize how the kids — not just the African kids but also the American kids — how they’ve responded to this interaction.

"To have such a great mutual love of soccer; that friendship that would be created. You’re bridging race, gender and socioeconomic status and those things that you think make us different, but soccer sort of flattens everything.”

The goal for Save-A-Thon is to open a soccer academy for about 1,000 kids in Nigeria within the next three years. The academy would focus on education and not just soccer.

Said Miles: “The idea is to make them student athletes; not sell them ‘Hey, you can all be the next Ronaldo. You be great. It’ll pay you lots of money and off you go.’ ”

The organization will be busing kids and coaches to a banquet the night before the Bridges Cup final where members of RSL Women have been asked to speak.

“I want each of the RSL Women to talk about what soccer means to them,” Miles said. “And I want each of those kids that will play in the final to talk about what soccer means to them.”

The organization will start the process to get the winning boys and girls team to Utah by October to not only play soccer, but also visit schools.

“I want to show them examples of success,” said Miles. “Not, ‘Hey, you should move to America.’ But, ‘Here are some ideas that you could take back with you to Nigeria, adopt them into your life and into your systems, and see if you can’t make the country better.”

Nigeria has opportunities but many problems as well. Nigeria is the largest economy on the continent, but 100 million people out the 180 million population live on less than a dollar a day. “It’s staggering,” said Miles. “We say 100 million like it’s nothing. But if you think about how many people that actually is and how little one dollar is, you think, ‘Wow! Can’t we be doing something better here in the largest economy in the continent?’ I think we can.”

When asked about how Nigerians have reacted to Save-A-Thon for Africa, Miles said it was a struggle to gain their trust at first. “We were at this sports club (in Nigeria) and I had one guy say to me, ‘Your plan sound really interesting, but I have to go back to my kids and I got to tell them what you're telling me what you think you’re going to do. We’ve had white guys come over here and talk about these things. What makes you different?’ ” Miles said he got emotional and thanked the man for asking the question. “I’ve already done more than I would or could or should have done,” Miles told the man. “You think I’m going to stop now? Just try me.”

Integrity is something that Miles said is lacking by some people in Nigeria, who have previously made promises to help the people but have not kept their word. “It’s actually probably been the opposite. I’ve had to trust them. I’ve had to learn the hard way.”

For RSL Women’s Smith, mentoring is the most important aspect when it comes to the Bridges Cup.

“It’s just so nice because I felt like I had that for me; the way my club coach worked for me to get a scholarship or for me to play soccer. These kids adopt this mindset: 'you become a student of the game; you become obsessed with the game.' Promoting that keeps them from doing so many other things they could do. It’s definitely exciting to be that person (mentor) that someone was for me and be able to do that to them.”

Miles said Save-A-Thon for Africa is honored to have the support of RSL Women, especially since the players pay their own way to travel to Nigeria to be a part of the humanitarian mission.

“I love being associated with them, not necessarily because of RSL, but because of who these women are. Once people get to know them and see their example, it’s just going to help continue to grow what we are doing. To make the sacrifice of school, family, work, sleep. That’s huge to me. Some of them are leaving their husbands and kids behind for a week. They raise their own money to get themselves over there. They are phenomenal women. They’re not just these great soccer players, they are these great people of the world who can connect with these kids through the world sport of soccer.”

Save-A-Thon for Africa welcomes donations to help the people of Nigeria while continuing to support women’s soccer in Utah.

For more information on Save-A-Thon for Africa, and Real Salt Lake Women go to saveathonforafrica.org or realsaltlakewomen.com.

Xoel CÀrdenas is a writer with Deseret News sports. He is also a columnist at Fox Deportes. Follow him on Twitter @XoelCardenas.