Combining sports and education, and motivated by faith, Hassan Fofana is helping dreams come true for students in West Africa.
I first met Hassan Fofana in 2006, at a friend’s house in Baltimore, Maryland. Hassan was studying at Loyola College and I was at Temple University. The two of us were an unusual pair. Hassan, who was born in Guinea and grew up in Togo, is nearly seven feet tall; he was a center on Loyola’s basketball team. On my good days, I’m five feet, eight inches tall.
Despite the humor that ensued when the two of us stood side by side, we became fast friends, united by a shared passion for social justice. At the time, my experiences with the larger world were minimal, but at only 21, Hassan was already a worldly man. At the age of 14, when Hassan was still living in Togo, he’d been one of 55 kids to try out for an American basketball coach. The coach was offering one scholarship to a prep school in Massachusetts. It was, Hassan once told me, a hopelessly long shot. And yet, at the end of the try out, Hassan was chosen. Barely a teenager, he left his family and home to enroll at Hargrave Military Academy in Boston. He didn’t speak a word of English.
Despite being so far from home, and in a strange country, Hassan embraced the opportunity. He won a scholarship to play basketball at the University of Maryland, under hall of fame coach Gary Williams, and after that he transferred to Loyola College, where he earned a degree in International Relations and Philosophy.
Throughout his journey, Hassan was shocked by the kindness of people he met along the way – especially the Gibbons family and his mentor, Mike Zona. Generosity wasn’t unusual for Hassan, of course. He grew up with devout Muslim parents, who taught him both the value of an education and the generosity that their faith preached.
“For as long as I can remember, my parents ha(d) always ha(d) 1 to 3 guests in our home. They w(ould) stay there for as long as they like(d) for free housing and food,” Hassan told me.
These lessons, and the continual generosity he encountered, left a deep mark on Hassan. While he was at Loyola, he began to have an inkling that he wanted to spend his life serving others.
Shortly before Hassan and I met in 2006, he returned to Togo for only the second time since leaving for the U.S. The trip, which would change his life, had been made possible by a dear friend and businessman who had asked Hassan what he missed most about his home. Hassan said he missed the sense of community – the way that everyone knew everyone else’s name, and how neighbors watched out for each other – and he missed his family. Hassan has many siblings, and he missed their large, sprawling family meals and the easy camaraderie that brothers and sisters have together.
While back in Togo, Hassan and a friend were watching a group of kids – most of them around twelve years old – play soccer. Hassan still knew most of the kids in his town, and was curious why some children weren’t out there with their friends. His friend told Hassan that many of the children had been taken out of school. Because their families were struggling for money, the boys’ fathers had decided that school was a waste of time. They weren’t playing soccer because they were working – many of them for less than five dollars a day.
Hassan was troubled by this. Sports and education had always been linked in his mind. After all, it was a sport that had allowed him to pursue a higher education in America. Watching that soccer game, Hassan began to get a sense of what he wanted to do with his life. When I met him that fall, he told me that, inspired by his trip back home, he wanted to open schools for athletes in Africa. He wanted to help young kids, just like himself, to get a real education.
“I was convinced that this was my mission on this earth,” he says.
Now, eight years later, Hassan is beginning to make his dream a reality. In 2012, after a few false starts, Hassan formed Time2Ball Foundation, which aims to connect student-athletes in West Africa with prep coaches in the United States and Europe. The hope is that these kids will use their athletics to get the kind of world class education they can’t get in Africa – and through education, open up all kinds of opportunities for themselves and their communities. With the help of donors, educators, coaches, and local community leaders, since 2012, Hassan has brought eleven teenagers from Africa to study at high schools in the United States and Europe.
Though Hassan lives and works in the U.S – and though all his student-athletes are coming to study in the U.S. and Europe – Hassan still has his gaze focused on Africa. He firmly believes that the continent can fix its problems through its young leaders getting better educations. Inspired by his own devout faith, Hassan stresses the need to give back to others. He encourages the student-athletes that he works with not just to pursue their own goals, but to be generous and to help others achieve their dreams, too. Through this intense focus on community and generosity, Hassan hopes that many of Time2Ball’s student-athletes will ultimately return to Africa to help open up more avenues of opportunity in local communities.
I recently spoke with Hassan and asked him what has been the best part of his work. He told me a story about a young man who had dropped out of school in Togo and had found work cleaning roads. Time2Ball was able to connect him with a basketball coach in the U.S., where he’s now a junior in high school, with a B+ grade average and possible college scholarships on the table. As Hassan told me, being able to help someone like this boy achieve his dream of a better life is “a true blessing.”
Despite its early success, Time2Ball still faces plenty of challenges going forward, such as funding and housing for its student-athletes. Because it’s still small, unfortunately, there are many student-athletes Time2Ball hasn’t been able to help. Hassan says that he’s constantly looking for new solutions to these problems. He’s hoping that, in the future, a stable network of donors and schools will allow him to focus more on finding student-athletes. But he’s not there yet, and is looking for all the help he can get.
Even with these challenges, Hassan has big dreams for Time2Ball. Within the next five years, he’d like to expand Time2Ball’s influence by helping athletes in many sports connect with coaches (for now, Time2Ball only works with basketball and soccer players). He’d also like to help aspiring artists in Africa find better opportunities to develop their talents.
The long term dream, though, is still the same as it was when Hassan and I met over eight years ago: he wants to open a series of schools in Togo and West Africa that will utilize kids’ love of sports to improve their access to a quality education. Driven by faith and the generosity of many people he has met along the way, Hassan Fofana is helping dreams come true, one education at a time.