MIDDLEBURG - Uganda is a long way from Pennsylvania, but take a trip there and you might find men and women, boys and girls with hopes, dreams and passions much like our own. Just ask Midd-West soccer coach Chris Sauer about it - he'll be glad to tell you about his shared passion with the people of Uganda.
Sauer is the founder of a charitable organization called the Crested Crane FC Soccer Sponsorship. Through the program, soccer teams in the U.S. can sponsor youth soccer teams in Uganda by providing them with equipment and funds. Sauer said the idea for the sponsorship came to him last summer during a trip to Uganda with his church, the Grace Covenant Community Church in Middleburg.
"My church has been involved in investing heavily in that area in Uganda," said Sauer, who explained that some of those investments have been to help bring housing, clean water and business trainings to the town of Gulu in northern Uganda.
Chris Sauer, center, who coaches soccer at Midd-West High School, celebrates with youth in Uganda, beneficiary nation of a program Sauer established through his church to supply players in the impoverished nation with equipment to play the sport.
But beyond the services his church already provides, Sauer wanted to reach out in a different way.
"No one has really done anything with the one thing they're really passionate about, which is soccer. And I share that passion," he said.
That's when the Crested Crane sponsorship was born, and since then the seed from last year has germinated into something more.
Crested Crane FC Soccer Sponsorship is connected with Finding the Way, a registered non-governmental organization that is based in Uganda and run by Jenny Crawford. Finding the Way is Grace Covenant's base while serving in Uganda, and the organization's webiste (findingthewayafrica.org/) explains that its focus is on building up the people of Uganda after years of civil war.
Crawford is one of the people who originally encouraged Sauer to make the trip to Uganda, and after that trip, in which Sauer and his group were able to deliver about 50 to 60 soccer balls and other equipment to the kids, the Crested Crane program gained sponsorship for two different teams - the Gulu Crested Crane High School team, and a youth team from the village of Awhee called "The Rising Stars."
Sauer is making a return trip this summer from June 4 to June 16 to deliver the funds and equipment that have been raised.
Named for Uganda's national bird, Sauer said the Crested Crane sponsorship is his way to honor God by sharing his gifts and passions with others.
"It's the national bird. It's on their flag. It's just kind of like a symbol of hope, so that's the main focus of this is to just be able to bring a little bit of light, to be able to bring a little bit of hope," he said.
But the focus of the Crested Crane sponsporship is not just on Uganda. Sauer also has seen good fruit from the program come about in his own community.
This summer Colton Keister - a freshman at Messiah College and past member of the Midd-West soccer team - will make the trip to Uganda with Sauer, along with Noah Cubbison, a student from Chestnut Ridge High School in East St. Clair. Sauer said the local impact is the secondary reason for beginning the sponsorship.
"It's two-fold," he explained. "I saw how much it did in the kids who were with me last summer. So I want to give the kids that I work with here the opportunity to serve and make an impact as well."
This impact is evident. Sauer said he already has a large group of former and current players commited to making a trip to Uganda in the summer of 2015.
Sauer has teamed up with former West Snyder soccer coach Gerry Botdorf, who runs a program similar to Sauer's called Share the Wealth. Botdorf's program is under the umbrella of the Pennsylvania Soccer Coaches Association, and he will send additional equipment along with Sauer when he leaves in June.
"When it came time to play over there, given the choice to just play a game or to train, they wanted the training," Sauer said of last year's trip to Uganda. "They don't have the coaching or the training. They really, really were hungry for that."
To sponsor this year's trip, Sauer said he has received overwhelming help from the community.
From a local U14 girls team running a fundraiser for the trip to individuals completing the cold water challenge and presenting him with the funds, Sauer said the community has really gathered around and given him plenty of support.
"It's not easy raising thousands of dollars, and when you think of it, it's not something that you can do on your own. So I really think I've got devine intervention on this," he said.
Anyone interested in supporting the Crested Crane FC Soccer Sponsorship can do so by contacting Sauer at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. All funding is handled through the Grace Covenant Community Church and through Finding the Way.