It's not too often than a pro athlete does something more inspiring after sports than during his career. Seth Stammler might be an example. He played from 2004 to 2010 with the Red Bulls of Major League Soccer, and now he's focusing fully on his role as founder of the Sporting Chance Foundation, which provides fresh water and education opportunities to the citizens on Haiti. On the eve of his trip to Port-au-Prince for the unveiling of a prosthetics lab to help Haitian amputees, Stammler spent a few minutes with us.
TPG: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Stammler: I grew up in a small suburb on the outskirts of Columbus with my mom and dad, who are still in Columbus, and my older brother. I played a lot of different sports, but around the age of 14 I started really focusing on soccer. I honestly didn’t know if I’d be good enough to play in college. I started taking things more seriously in the gym, started working out a lot more and that kind of propelled me into a couple of good years during my junior and senior years of high school. I started getting a little bit of interest from some bigger college programs, and so when the opportunity came to play at the University of Maryland, I jumped on it, primarily just because they had a great soccer reputation and a good business school. While at Maryland, our coach was pretty adamant about us being active in the community. I think that’s where I got my inclination to be involved in the community and use my free time to better the life of somebody else.
TPG: How was the retirement at the end of this last season?
Stammler: It’s something I had been contemplating for a couple of years especially once I knew what industry I wanted to get into. I honestly thought that I was going to play for like two or three years and be done. So the fact that it progressed for seven years kind of surprised me. Of course I wish I could’ve played until I was 40 and got paid well for it, but that’s not the reality here in the U.S. So I kind of knew that it was time to move on ... to do something different, and it’s something I’m excited about. It’s not like I’m just retired with nothing to do.
Stammler: The team used to be called the New York and New Jersey MetroStars. At the beginning of my third year, Red Bull, the energy drink, purchased the team. And to make a big splash in New York City, they planned a pretty big event just around our first game of our 2006 season. Part of that was having Wyclef Jean and Shakira perform at halftime. Wyclef found out that we had two guys of Haitian descent on our team. So he reached out to our P.R. staff and said, “Hey why don’t you invite Jozy (Altidore) and Jerrod (Laventure) to Haiti in November? I’m hosting a music and film festival in Jacmel,” which is a coastal city down in Haiti. “You guys can come down. It’ll be good publicity for everybody, and it’ll be pretty sweet.” So I caught wind of that and knowing that in my offseason, which drags on for like eight weeks, I usually just go back home to Ohio and after like ten days, I’m bored out of my mind. I’d been active in the New York community for a long time and thought it would be cool to have a little bit more international experience. I really invited myself on the trip. I said, “Hey, I heard about this. I want to be a part of it. What do I have to do to make this happen?” They told me that I had done all I had to do -- ask. I ended up going down in November 2006 for a six-day trip. We were busy from sunrise to sunset doing clothes distribution, food distributions. We had the intentions of doing a lot of soccer clinics but we found out that most of the kids were more interested in just playing rather than just having a structured clinic. So all of the clinics kind of turned into a free-for-all, a pick-up soccer game on the field that we were on. I had an amazing experience.
TPG: What's the mission of the foundation?
Stammler: I met just the most amazing people -- adults who had been there obviously their whole lives to the youths who obviously haven’t been alive for too long so they don’t know kind of the realities of life. You can kind of see the dichotomy in their personalities. Anyone above the age of 16, 17 looked at us with pretty skeptical eyes. And the kids were just looking for a good time, so if we’re willing to play soccer with them for a few hours, they were excited about it and wanted to do it wholeheartedly. I came back to the States after the trip and I knew I wanted to do something, although I didn’t know what at the time. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I wanted to do something more long term. Education and clean water were two of the things I noticed on my trip down there that were so ridiculous. I literally started Googling how to set up a nonprofit and what goes into it. I took it from there and then started doing the work to become registered with the IRS as a 501c3 nonprofit.
TPG: Once the foundation was formed, how did things progress?
Stammler: The first priority was the education program. We have two sessions. One is a community scholarship program, which is a very basic education. Although 90 percent of the schools in Haiti are private, so it does at least take some sort of tuition to enroll, we were providing this to about 50 kids the first year. Again, it's a very basic education, but at least something to keep them out of the streets. The community scholarships are only $60 a year. The accelerated scholarship feature a much more rigorous curriculum -- more along the lines of a private school you would think about here in the States -- and those run more like $60 a month. But we think those are important, too, because although you want everyone to have a basic education, you want to have those students with the aptitude that in the future they can be a big part of helping Haiti turn things around both economically and politically speaking. We had to find the students for the education program, which is such a bizarre process compared to here in the States, having guys go through the streets of Port-Au-Prince with megaphones announcing that there was going to be an aptitude test. We took the top 45 students in terms of score and enrolled them into the program. Some were chosen through an aptitude test, others were already enrolled in schools and families were having financial difficulties. We took over their payments.
TPG: And the water program?
Stammler: It took probably 6-8 months to finish the well, which was done in October of last year. Then I want down with the Sporting Chance Foundation board and a few people from the Red Bulls. That was the first time we got to meet all of the students and see the water well in action, and it just happened to be three weeks before the earthquake last year.
TPG: What did the earthquake do to your programs?
Stammler: We were really fortunate. The water well, while it might have been down for a day with a few structural issues, was still in working condition and providing clean water in a very important time for the people of Haiti. It provides water to over 9,000 individuals. So it was a key necessity the days after the earthquake. The education program was essentially shut down for a few weeks because no one was obviously worried about being in school. As things settled down, we got all of the kids back in school on a regular basis, although we lost a few because they had to relocate due to obvious family matters.
TPG: What was it like for you watching the devastation unfold on your television?
Stammler: I was actually in the process of moving in Columbus at the time. I didn’t even have cable. My access was running to the coffee shop, getting on the Internet and checking to see what the newest stories were. The first couple of days after the earthquake were extremely stressful. One, obviously being worried about the scholarship recipients and how they and their families were doing. Two, all of the people I had met over the years in Haiti. I didn’t hear from them for a few days because of the Internet and telephone communication being down, but fortunately for us we didn’t lose anybody from the program or anybody in my contacts down there. Once we realized everyone was in good health, our immediate thought process was to see how we could help and what we wanted to do. We experienced a great increase in donations.
TPG: How can the average person help your foundation out?
Stammler: It really comes down to fundraising. It doesn’t take much. We’ve had some neat experiences with kids donating their $5 allowances, and the parents don’t see that as doing much. I explain to the parents that it doesn’t take many offers like that to get a scholarship for a year. I’m more concerned with Haiti than the Sporting Chance, so if you’re inclined to donate to someone working in Haiti, do that. Donors can be confident that all of their money is getting down to Haiti. We’ve had people who maybe don’t have the financial resources to make a donation so they’ve hosted their own fundraiser, which I always work closely with them to see that things go well and that they have all of the resources to make the event a successful one. We’ve got wristbands, T-shirts and scarves that we sell with all of the proceeds going to support the Sporting Chance Foundation.
TPG: What did being name the Major League Soccer WORKS Humanitarian of the Year mean to you?
Stammler: It was great. I’m not in for personal accolades, but I always embrace them because that type of publicity is great for the foundation and to get awareness out about the living conditions of Haiti. It’s about drawing attention to the needs that aren’t met daily in Haiti.
TPG: Tell us what you're doing this weekend in Haiti.
Stammler: Sporting Chance Foundation is extremely excited to be partnering with Challenged Athletes Foundation to bring sports to the victims of the 2010 earthquake. I'll be doing my part by teaching amputee children to play soccer. Attention must be paid to those children, and sports have always served as a form of reprieve from the abject living conditions that exist in Haiti. We hope to provide confidence, hope and some form of a return to normalcy for the earthquake victims.