Last Saturday, Pittsburgh’s Cameroon Football Development Program officially rebranded itself at a public event, renaming the organization Open Field.
The name, celebrated at a community event at Schenley Park, is new. But the approach to youth sports and community engagement remains the same as it’s been ever since Justin Forzano was inspired to create the organization in 2010.
Forzano had first arrived in Cameroon in 2006 as a young engineer.
He was making regular trips to the southwestern corner of this Central African nation with a team of fellow engineering students from the University of Dayton. Their job? To assist with water and sanitation projects in underserved communities.
It was during a three-month village stay in the summer of 2007 that Forzano came to appreciate his host country’s deep and abiding love for soccer.
“Every morning, we were doing construction, digging the trenches, working to lay the pipe,” he recalls. “And every afternoon, we were at the soccer field.”
The way the entire community — players and spectators — came out for games stayed with Forzano as he finished his studies and began a civil engineering career in Pittsburgh.
In 2010, during the lead up to the World Cup, he came across news coverage about community groups using sports leagues to help address pressing health and social issues. Immediately reminded of his soccer-loving Cameroonian hosts, Forzano called his friends in-country.
By the end of that year, Forzano and his local co-founder Peter Ngwane had organized their first educational soccer camp, the Cameroon Football Development Program.
With Pittsburgh as their home base, the organization‘s work in Cameroon steadily grew over the next several years, adding after-school programs, tournaments and leadership programs for young female athletes. They even taught courses for young male students on gender equity.
“Because we’re working with soccer,” Forzano explains. “Kids always have more of an open ear than if they were sitting in a classroom.”
In 2014, they were accepted into streetfootballworld, a global network of civic-minded sports organizations, which enabled them to receive funding from the international soccer federation FIFA.
Even in the face of the tragic sectarian violence that has gripped the country since late 2016, the in-country team has grown and the organization has eight full-time staff members operating from their Cameroon office.
“They don’t need me there,” says Forzano. “Which is great.”
With their initial project on firm, sustainable footing, Forzano says he and his U.S. team began brainstorming ways they could scale up and recreate their Cameroonian success in other countries. For the first step in its expansion, the nonprofit decided to go with home-field advantage, and bring their work to the soccer fields of Pittsburgh.
So far, the renamed nonprofit Open Field has lined up two partner communities: the Somali Bantu residents clustered around Northview Heights and the populations of Congolese and Syrian refugees that have been recently resettled in Crafton by Jewish Family and Community Services.
Working with support from The Heinz Endowments and PNC Charitable Trusts, the nonprofit will roll out updated versions of its long-standing curriculum over the course of this summer.
“The Pittsburgh community has certainly been really supportive to us over the years through our different events and our campaigns,” says Forzano. “We’re just excited to bring the model here to further develop it, and see where we can take it from here.”