Salem Soccer helping Puerto Rico


On September 20th, 2017 the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was shattered by hurricane Maria.   More than five months later we’re watching our fellow citizens still suffering from the apocalyptic devastation. Parts of the Island are yet enduring the longest major power outage in modern U.S. history, not to mention many environmental and health problems…

One day, Salem’s Head Coach Florin Marton and Assistant Coach Leo Tillemont asked the team a question: “Would you be willing to go down to Puerto Rico to pitch in and help local relief efforts instead of going to an international preseason camp?” The answer was a resounding, unanimous: YES!

And so, the hard work began! Just about 40 student/athletes and coaches from almost 20 countries represented on our soccer roster began an energetic fundraising drive. These guys are very much into community service and helping others.

John Rice, from California says: “It all started as a thought, an idea, a dream, a GOAL. Puerto Rico… can you imagine it? Being on the Island of Enchantment, helping those who need it more than you do? Making a change in the life of a person that has lived through tragedy? Working as a team to accomplish something bigger than us? Well, we tried to imagine it, I mean is easy if you try, but making this mission a reality was nothing easy. First, with limited time for the trip to put together, we had to come up with plans to fundraise money so we could travel.”

The Salem soccer players went to work at WVU games, some players went to bag groceries at local stores and they also contributed their own moneys… Donations were solicited and received through the Salem University Foundation and  Mateo Gutierrez and Lucas Vianna even held a music concert “Playing for Puerto Rico”…

With travel arrangements and logistics in Puerto Rico in place, [NO PASSSPORTS NEEDED] everybody woke up very, very early the morning of Wednesday, February 28th, to leave the dorms around 3:00 in the morning because the flight took off at 7:00 AM.

Diego Rius Millotte, from Mexico continues: “We made it to the airport looking very professional, everyone wearing their team pants, polos, and jackets. The flight felt very long, but it was a great experience; the diversity of people that were on that plane was insane. Some people sleeping and snoring, others watching movies, but one thing that I can say is that we were all more than excited to land in the Island of Enchantment. Brett Garris from West Virginia, adds: “The first step outside that plane, the almost unbearable humidity and heat of Puerto Rico welcomed us. We all saw past it, because the excitement of being here was bigger than the weather as we waited for the bus that would take us to Bayamon, we were singing dancing and clapping of excitement, maybe it was the warm weather, maybe the fact that we were there to change people’s lives, or maybe is just that we are that kind of team, as we all say we always have good vibes in the men's soccer team. The bus arrived and we rushed towards it, as we walked inside you heard the Caribbean music, lots of reggaeton and great music to dance to on the way there”.

Federico Toschi, from Italy, remarks: Once we got to Bayamon, we went into the house. It was a nice two story house, there were bunk beds for all of us, some people chose downstairs and some upstairs, but in the end everyone got a bed to sleep in. We got set up and we went down to the soccer fields. After visiting the fields just talking about what we wanted to do in the week ahead and how we were going to help so many people. We came back up and just relaxed, got some dinner and went to bed.”

Calvin Negus, from England says: “The next morning we woke up early, everyone was up by 8:30 eating breakfast, getting ready to go to the Salvation Army and help out. Upon arrival we went into the chapel and Lt. Melvin Aleman, the Director of the Bayamon Chapter of the Salvation Army thanked us for being there, prayed for us and for our voluntary work.

We took on the project and got scrapers and rollers, buckets of paint and brushes… We scraped all the bad paint and we got into groups all around the building and started painting. We all were doing it with a smile but inside we knew this was very hard work, the harsh sun beams were falling down upon us, everyone was working very hard and sweating but we never stopped… 

Andres Cortes, from Texas [born in Colombia] continues: By 12:00 noon we got a break to eat lunch provided by the cooks at the Salvation Army, the food was delicious and we all enjoyed it, after this great meal we went back to work under the scorching sun. Around 4:00 in the afternoon we finished the first day but there was still a lot of work to be done, we went back to the house and we showered and relaxed, we got to watch some soccer games and then went back to the house relaxing, listening to music and having fun.”

Niklas Roessler, from Germany adds: “The team got organized by coach Marton similar to a military platoon. Three groups evenly numbered, one designated player as group leader and an assistant coach supervising the group. Each group was tasked with daily responsibilities such as cooking, setting up and serving the team meals, cleaning, doing laundry… The boys were entrepreneurial, responsible and efficient.”

Pablo Flores, from Colombia mentions: “The second morning of our Puerto Rico adventure, the first group [of players] prepared breakfast for the rest of the team, we ate and went back to work the whole day painting. That was 2/3 of the team…” Dom Gillespie, from England, adds: “That morning, Lt. Melvin Aleman took me and Calvin with him to buy a generator. We delivered it to the house of this lady whose live was dependent on a respirator. Sad to see that electricity was not yet restored, but glad to know that we contributed to solving her problem”. 

Another group of players together with Coach Leo Tillemont travelled to Caguas, to the Salvation Army warehouse. They sorted and loaded food and other supplies into a large delivery truck and then travelled to one of the most ravaged corners of the island:

Assistant Coach James Cockshott, from England, remarks: “While many players were still working hard to finish the painting job in Bayamon, some of us were assigned to help out other volunteers at the Salvation Army warehouse. As Salvation Army continues to serve those desperate for basic resources, the warehouse is packed with donations coming from all across the states”. Vitor Teixeira from Brazil stated: “Seeing all those boxes and pallets full of supplies donated by generous families back in the US gave me a real sense of community”.

After signing in, our players took different work stations throughout the assembly line, where they proudly filled boxes, organized donation kits and loaded the delivery trucks, while carrying a big smile on their faces. Anyone could tell that at one point exhaustion kicked in but the spark in their eyes about helping others never went away.

Fabricio Costa from Brazil, mentions: “After about two hours at the warehouse, Coach Leo Tillemont was provided with instructions to deliver donation kits and led the players to a municipality in eastern Puerto Rico located east of Caguas called Gurabo. Salvation Army truck driver Jose had shared details on how Gurabo city had been catastrophically damaged by the hurricane as most of the city surroundings are still compromised and the power grid is yet to be fixed. As our group approached the city, there was a line already waiting on the emergency kits”. Nick Itopoulos from South Africa said: “we saw this 80 years old lady who could barely stand on her feet after waiting in line for nearly 2 hours under the hot sun to get some food from us. It hit me hard and made me realize how good we have it in the US”.

Andrea Morelli from Italy, says: “Our players learned about different life stories, unfortunately mostly sad ones, as the devastation after the hurricane was still very obvious. However, one thing didn’t go unnoticed: The emotional and spiritual appreciation showed by the Puerto Rico families was just unreal! Even though time was tough, they were kind, respectful and very sympathetic towards every single one of us. Our players helped in unloading the truck, making and delivering the kits to all community members and also carrying them to either their cars or nearby houses”.

Five hours of dedicated work went by and it was time to head back to Bayamon and rejoin the rest of the squad. Everyone was in silence for a moment on the road back, trying to sink in all stories and life lessons we had just gone through. Javier Mendoza, from California couldn’t hold it in: “It was certainly a reality check for all of us! My life is changed forever.”

Eric Soto, from Georgia adds: “By the end of the day the building looked very good, wasn’t yet finished but getting close. Our job there was not yet done but we had already caused a great impact on the people that worked there and that would see this building. We went back home and Mateo and Lucas had the guitars rolling, the guys were singing along and we were having a great time.”

Yosmel Romero, from Florida [born in Cuba} says: “Saturday, March 3rd was the day the entire team got back all over the Salvation Army building, determined to finish the remodeling project. And so we did! The day concluded with an impromptu concert by a band comprised of Lt. Melvin Aleman and Lucas Vianna on keyboards, Curtis Ketchup and Vitor Teixeira on drums and Mateo Gutierrez guitar and vocals. I don’t think even John Lennon could “Imagine”…”

Wiktor Stawski, from Poland adds: “After 3 days of hard work we were rewarded with a Sunday at the beach and it was very beautiful the water was nice and fresh, we got to play soccer in the sand and swim in the ocean and bond as a team. It was a wonderful experience.”

Dylan Ryan from England, says: “We were in Puerto Rico to help in the relief effort but we also wanted to learn and explore some of the unique features of the island. So, on Monday we travelled to the El Yunque National Forest, which is a sub-tropical mountainous rain forest located on the eastern end of Puerto Rico, where the trade winds first meet the island and dump the rain. While indeed it rained, we went on a hike down through the lush vegetation jungle to this majestic place of huge rocks and waterfalls… At the bottom of the trail, we found a rope hanging from a tree leaning over the small lake so you could swing and jump off and land in the water. This place was paradise and an experience that we will never forget.”

One of the most work-packed, emotional but at the same time rewarding days of the Puerto Rico trip was upon us. We loaded our two vehicles and Lt. Aleman lent a [driving] hand with his van, such that we all could go to the Caguas Salvation Army warehouse. When Nicky Roy, the young, energetic and already very efficient manager of the warehouse saw our guys coming in, she seemed to pick up a couple extra speed gears and in record time we sorted, packed and loaded up two trucks full of food items and supplies. Shortly thereafter we hit the road in a caravan of five vehicles; two cargo vehicles (Jose, our old acquaintance and coach Marton as drivers) plus three minivans, as one crew of Salvation Army volunteers joined with the Salem soccer team.

Amon Tarus from Maryland [born in Kenya], continues: “About an hour on the winding roads took us to an area that we knew nothing about… The nature seemed fresh, full and vivid and then we saw in the horizon the blue waves of the ocean. Enchanting… We figured that our destination was getting close and indeed we started seeing houses…, but sadly the vast majority of them looked battered, damaged beyond imagination. We saw some devastation during the week that we’ve been on the island but nothing like this… Now we got the comprehensive picture of what hurricane Maria left in her wake… here, in Barrio Camino Nuevo sector El Negro, Yabuccoa”.

Lucas Vianna, from Brazil, remarks: “People were waiting patiently under the tropical sun, the local Police officers got the area organized and secured while our crews unloaded the trucks and set up the delivery stations. Camping gas stoves, gas canisters, peanut butter jars, bed sheets and blankets, granola bars, prepackaged [at the warehouse] kits, bottled water…”

Sjoerd Schobbers, from Netherlands, adds: “Younger, middle-aged, old and older people started rolling slowly, orderly by the delivery stations. With smiles and tears the locals couldn’t thank us enough for being there, for the donations and for the help taking the packets to their vehicles or even to their houses nearby. Some of our players, as they were helping people carry the donated items, got to step inside houses… Oh my god, roofs gone, windows gone, furniture gone, belongings gone…! But from rubble and devastation, the human spirit comes to the surface more resilient, stronger, and more determined. These people have a genuine kindness that will change for the better anybody who has a soul…”

Assistant Coach Leo Souza De Meo, from Brazil, says: The trip to Yabuccoa concluded on a cheerful note as we took pictures on the shore of the ocean together with all the guest volunteers, a few local volunteers and the two brilliant lady police officers, Evelyn and Daisy.

Dom Gillespie, from England, remembers: “We made the trip back to Caguas, tired but happy, filled with the satisfaction of a mission accomplished. One last token of gratitude from the officials got each member of our delegation a red Salvation Army t-shirt as a souvenir”.

Mateo Gutierrez, from Colombia, concludes: “We bid farewell to all of the great volunteers we met and worked with in Caguas and Yabuccoa and got on the road back to Bayamon. Lt. Melvin had one more surprise for us, for the day: he introduced us to “Pollo Tropical”! Tasty, abundant and satisfying! Just what the doctor ordered after a long and plentiful trip!”

The warehouse manager [remember her? Nicky], her planning proved to be outstanding! Nobody who was there or came by left empty handed! She credited the Salem Soccer Boys for her being able to do more, for being able to help more people… Humbly, we’ll accept our share and are satisfied for being able to play our part in this humanitarian effort. We all learned a great deal…

Last but certainly not least, Ms. Nicky Roy and Head Coach Florin Marton put in motion the process of awarding the scholarships that Salem University will offer for a boy and a girl who are hurricane survivors.

Alejandro Del Campo Navarro, from Ecuador said: “The next day, since all our work was done and we had helped everyone we could help, we went to the beach one last time. We ate next to the beach and it was beautiful, the food was amazing and the experience was unique.”

Ameen El-Shami from Georgia, concludes: “Wednesday March 7th, in the morning we cleaned the house, got ready, put our polos on and got on the bus that would take us to the San Juan airport. Once in the airport we were all reminiscing of the time we had spent in Puerto Rico and how good of a week it was. The flight back was great, because we had all grown as human beings, we had made our mark in a place that needed us, and we had the most amazing time of our lives together as a team, as a FAMILY”.


Till Trippner from Germany: „I think I can speak for the whole team as I say that the trip to Puerto Rico was a life-changing experience for everyone. Seeing destroyed landscapes and how old ladies were suffering trying to get food for their families, changed our point of view about certain things. We learned to appreciate what we have as well as we are happy to be blessed with everything we have.

Besides all the work we did, we really enjoyed the beauty of the island, Puerto Rico, and the warm weather“.

Mark Ferenczi-Bako from Hungary: “First of all, this trip and the procedure towards it was impressive for me. Our coaching stuff and players moved some heavy rocks to make it possible. About the experience. I honestly can say it was life changing. Especially the day when we made packages in the warehouse and delivered food. That day I saw that you can lose almost everything you have, because of the power of nature. Seeing the people how thankful they are for the supplements was something I have never experienced before. Also seeing the conditions of the buildings and what hurricane Maria left there was terrible. Again, I have to repeat myself it was a life-changing experience”.

Sjoerd Schobbers, from the Netherlands: Going to Puerto Rico with the team to help people after they were hit by Hurricane Maria was a life changing experience. Painting the Salvation Army building, helping prepare care packages for families, handing out supplies and carrying the packages for those who were less able. These are just a handful things that hit home and made me realize how much we take things for granted. Thank you to those who made this possible!”

Curtis Ketchup, from West Virginia, adds: “We want to extend a special “Thank You” to Dr. Dennis McNaboe, Jessica Guzman, Sam Voelker, Emerald Rosenbusch, and Jessica Garcia for taking the Soccer Team to the Pittsburgh Airport and back. We grew to appreciate all of you, great night drivers!”
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Organizer and beneficiary

Dwayne Figo Phidd
Salem, WV
Leo Tillemont

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