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Plant coach rebuilding young Haitians’ lives through soccer

On January 12, 2010, Haiti was devastated by an earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands and displaced more than a million people.

John Feely, then an assistant boys soccer coach at Wharton High, traveled to Haiti shorty after the 7.0-magnitude quake to help some friends with recovery efforts. The friends directed a small orphanage there, which was absorbed by a larger health and orphan organization, Mission of Hope, during the aftermath.

While assisting his friends and Mission of Hope, Feely noticed the passion Haitian children possessed for soccer, but there was no field to play on or any equipment.

“You would see them playing with a water bottle or anything that could roll that resembled a soccer ball,” Feely said. It had a profound effect on him. “There was more I wanted to do down there,” he said.

Feely, who played soccer at Jesuit High and on a college club team at the University of Florida, acted on an idea to develop a soccer program in that area of Haiti. He returned with cleats, jerseys and soccer equipment. And he wasn’t alone.

Accompanying Feely was his brother, former NFL kicker Jay Feely, who also attended Jesuit High. The brothers held a soccer clinic in 2011 at Mission of Hope. Many of the children who participated were still displaced and living in tents.

Feely then founded World Ministries Football Club, a non-profit geared toward supporting and encouraging youths to pursue an education and playing opportunities after high school. One of the clinic’s first participants, Wedner Delmonte, now plays college soccer at Grand Canyon University.

It was the beginning of a process that has changed the lives of hundreds of youths in Haiti.

Feely, now in his fourth year as the boys soccer coach at Plant High, has made six trips to Haiti in the past five years. Each soccer camp draws 200 to 300 children. This past summer, the camp was held at the Olympic soccer complex built by the nation’s Olympic committee. Feely said some of the young players walked miles to participate in the clinic.

In 2014, Mission of Hope and the Feely Family Foundation announced a partnership to construct an athletic complex and technical school in Haiti. The sports facility is expected to be equipped with soccer fields, basketball courts, a weight training facility, a soccer and track stadium, an 1,800-seat outdoor amphitheater and a public park.

“Soccer transcends culture, so when the Feelys come in, and with soccer, there’s this gap that is bridged,” said Elizabeth Billingslea, director of mobilization at Mission of Hope. “The village that the Feelys continue to do soccer in, the kids know their names. They know what time it’s coming.”

In Tampa, Feely organizes fundraisers to purchase soccer equipment and to rent facilities in Haiti. The funds also help pay for children whose families can’t afford the cost of the ticket to participate in the clinic.

Joining Feely on past trips were his father, nationally known kicking instructor Tom Feely; Land O’ Lakes boys coach Mark Pearson; and Jesuit soccer coach Eric Sims. Over the years, high school athletes from Wharton, Plant, Berkeley Prep and Academy of the Holy Names have helped operate the clinics.

“One of the ways soccer has been great is it brings gospel to the kids as well,” Billingslea said.

Feely also has begun teaching adults in Haiti how to become instructors.

“I think we’re almost to a point they can continue on their own,” he said.

Feely said he and his family would like to expand to other areas of the world, including Africa.

“Although it changes our lives, its not about us,” Feely said. “It’s about empowering them to grow as a community and be self-sustaining and successful.