Football and softball fields on the east side of St. Paul are getting a makeover this fall as teams install artificial turf and an inflatable dome.
The 9 million per t projecta Sanneh Foundationa nonprofit youth development organization that works largely with low-income students of color, will boost year-round activities by creating a seasonal indoor space next to fields with shock pads to prevent concussions cerebral.
“It’s probably going to be the safest ground in Minnesota,” said Tony Sanneh, the retired Major League Soccer player who started and leads the nonprofit. “Woodbury and the suburbs have things like that. We are investing in the neighborhood to build a first class facility.
The project is part of $10 million in improvements to the grounds and adjacent Conway Community Center, both leased nonprofits by the city. The work also comes at a busy time during the pandemic.
Sanneh (pronounced SAW-nay) and her nonprofit organization responded to the crisis by distributing free food to a growing number of families in need, and this month began welcoming students from St. Paul and other districts to have a safe place to do distance learning while their parents work.
“The community has never needed this before,” Sanneh said, adding that disparities are widening as well-to-do parents can afford “learning pods” for their children while they work.
The Sanneh Foundation, which works with 10,000 children a year, does more than promote football, helping to educate and empower children from St. Cloud to St. Paul. “The consensus is that we’re a football organization or a big football camp,” Sanneh said. “I don’t think people recognize Minnesota talent very much and I don’t think they recognize Minnesota talent. Black Minnesota But I hope people will start to look at the merits of our work and really start to understand that we could be a vehicle, especially in this time, that is responsive and can change the community.
Development of youth programs
The foundation took over the Conway Community Center in 2014, one of eight nonprofits that operate recreation centers in St. Paul. The city sought out the partnerships due to post-recession budget cuts, which caused some centers to close.
“What happens when you close a community center? Crime is increasing,” Sanneh said. “We want to create a fair and safe space.”
Some residents then had mixed reactions about a nonprofit renting the recreation center, said Betsy Mowry Voss, executive director of the Southeast Community Organization, formerly the District 1 Community Council.
“I know there are members of the community who feel like the recreation center has been taken away from them,” she said. “But honestly, I don’t think the city had a lot of choice…the alternative is there’s nothing.”
The Sanneh Foundation’s 15-year lease with the city until 2034 has the option of extending another 15 years if they deliver $8 million in improvements. They are already beyond that, completing $10 million in improvements with the artificial turf pitches and about $1 million in recreation center upgrades, such as a computer lab. The project is supported by $4.5 million from the government bond bill, a $200,000 grant from the city, and donations from individuals and foundations.
Some residents objected to the new fields and dome, saying it would increase traffic and be a horror. Mowry Voss said the district council, the foundation and the city are discussing solutions such as signs to direct motorists to off-street parking.
“While there are disgruntled neighbors, the reality is that we can’t just write off the number of children and families the programs serve,” she said. “Having high quality sports fields and having a dome here in our community is pretty important. we don’t have a lot of new stuff that really benefits the community.
The dome, which is about 150 meters long, will still be accessible to the community, Sanneh said, including a track for older people to walk on in winter. The dome is expected to open on December 1 and the fields next spring.
“The Sanneh Foundation is an essential partner in supporting children and families,” Mayor Melvin Carter said in a statement. “Reinvesting in their home at the Conway Community Center means expanding their ability to provide programs and an even greater impact on our community.”
Football star turned philanthropist
Sanneh, 49, dominates the kids with his 6-foot-2 frame.
Growing up on the East Side of St. Paul, public parks were her refuge while her mother, a single mother, worked as a social worker.
When he launched the foundation in 2003, he wanted to do more than just focus on football, developing a dozen initiatives. “I decided I wanted to build an organization based on relationships, not football,” he said.
After retiring from professional football in 2010, he became the full-time CEO, growing the foundation to an annual budget of $3 million with approximately 65 year-round employees. One is Jaron Whitaker, 29, who landed his first full-time job a week after serving a prison sentence. A year later, he is grateful that Sanneh gave him a second chance at life.
“It definitely got me off the streets and did something positive,” Whitaker said. “Without this job, I don’t know where I would be.”
The nonprofit has expanded its programs over the years — from summer camps for youth to a mentorship program called Dreamline that pays coaches to work with low-income students in St. Paul, North St. Paul and St. Cloud. Another program in Haiti works with approximately 320 children each year.
Sanneh has bigger ambitions, juggling running the nonprofit with taking classes to finish his bachelor’s degree in education policy — aided by a prestigious Bush Foundation scholarship he won in 2019. He plans to buy an office building for the non-profit organization with affordable housing.
“It pushes me, a bit like an athlete, to keep going,” he said of his work. “I want to help more children.”