At 28, Kelsey Sullivan is fearless and determined, but she always has a twinkle in her eye. After graduating from Dunn School in Los Olivos, she traveled to Ghana to volunteer for the Right to Dream Academy, a school for talented West African soccer players. There she met 11 boys from Sierra Leone who had been sponsored by the Craig Bellamy Foundation (CBF), a similar program started by the Welsh soccer player.
Athletic and good-natured, Sullivan was a good fit. As a child in Wyoming, her first love was dogsledding, but she’s also boxed, danced, run track, and, of course, played soccer. She was especially drawn to the Sierra Leonean kids, who were “honest, direct, and a little bit cheeky … like me.” Today, she is the primary sponsor, advocate, and den mother to 14 Sierra Leonean boys who are living, playing soccer, and attending high school in the Santa Barbara area.
“We look at maybe 4,000 kids in Sierra Leone and ultimately whittle it down to 16,” she said. “For those who are chosen, it’s huge.” The players get room and board, running water, electricity, the only grass field in the country other than the national stadium, and five-year scholarships. “We start to see who the stand-out leaders are and who has really strong character,” said Sullivan, “and these might be chosen to come here to California.”
Dunn School has been especially receptive to the CBF boys: Seven will begin at Dunn this year, and Dunn’s first CBF graduate, Sahid Conteh, is about to start college at Loyola Marymount. There are also two boys at Cate this fall, and two at Laguna Blanca. The students have full scholarships and play for Santa Barbara Soccer Club. “Hopefully some will play pro, and some will get degrees, and we’ll see where it goes,” Sullivan said. In 2020, when the current group graduates, she plans to move back to Sierra Leone and expand the program to girls.
Except for the Cate boarders, the students live with Sullivan. “It’s just me and the boys, but we figure it out,” she said. “We talk about things. We learn things culturally. Everyone comes away with a better understanding.”
Though the annual trips to Sierra Leone are complicated, her love for the country is palpable. “There’s so much poverty, but so much hope and spirit,” she said. “One of the fathers sells newspapers in Freetown. He works so hard, and he has so little, but he’s so happy and grateful for life. It makes me rethink my own life.
“I read somewhere that if you find what breaks your heart, you find your passion,” she continued. “It’s true for me. How can we share? What would bring communities and cultures together? That would help the world so much. The dialogue, the learning experience, even just to have a real conversation … It breaks my heart when you can’t do that. So how can I bring these things together? I found my exact purpose. This is what I was supposed to do.”