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Tarboro coach teaches soccer beyond American borders

By Justin Hite

Sports Writer

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Nothing really made Djunkenson Casseus stand out from a group of Haitian teenagers two years ago, but he stood out to Tarboro soccer coach Leshaun Jenkins.

Casseus wasn’t physically imposing or dwarfed by his teammates. He wasn’t loud or brash. There was just something about him that made Jenkins take notice.

Jenkins had been lured away from his first mission trip with the Bethel Baptist Church by a group of young soccer players near the town of Croix-des-Bouquets.

He remembers 30 Haitian boys standing in a line that day, and each of them greeted him with a handshake, thankful that he was even there.

But there was Casseus.

Jenkins still can’t place why he was drawn to the then-16-year-old boy.

Was it a coach’s intuition? Jenkins finished his 13th year leading the Tarboro boys’ soccer program last fall.

Was it God directing him to the young boy whose mother had abandoned the family and whose father had died?

“He just had a glow,” Jenkins said.

Casseus couldn’t speak English, but Jenkins still found a bond even through a translator. He bought Casseus’ family rice and beans, enough to last a few weeks.

“He told me that he thought that God sent me there just for him,” Jenkins said.

The two exchanged bracelets before Jenkins returned to the United States. Jenkins gave Casseus his yellow Livestrong bracelet and took home a thin rubber black band that he still wears around his left wrist.

A few months later, Jenkins received a Facebook message in surprisingly good English. It was from Casseus, who had been inspired by the Livestrong bracelet to teach himself English by reading the dictionary.

Jenkins and two Tarboro High School students, Jess Gaul and Hydeia Shaw, will travel back to Haiti on July 8 for an eight-day mission trip with Bethel Baptist Church.

Jenkins will see Casseus again. He’ll bring soccer cleats. He’ll continue his work with a youth soccer camp, which was started almost by accident but is now part of the mission’s ministry.

“When you spend the time that I get to spend with these kids to see that they’re looking at you and they see hope in you, there’s nothing like it,” said Jenkins, who receives weekly Facebook messages from members of the neighborhood team in Haiti asking when he’ll return. “… There’s just something really special about Haiti and the people. They need so much, but they don’t expect anything.”

Soccer never was Jenkins’ sport of choice growing up. He joined the team at SouthWest Edgecombe in the program’s infancy just because it was something to do with his friends.

He was an All-Conference performer on the field, but tennis was his sport. He played tennis at East Carolina and always believed that if he was to travel the world or accomplish things through athletics, it would be because of tennis.

He never anticipated the power of soccer in Haiti.

“Soccer is the sport of hope in Haiti,” Jenkins said. “Kids will play soccer all day long without even food to eat. You see kids kicking empty plastic bottles because they don’t have a ball to kick. Soccer is the thing that gives them hope and life.”

Haiti is an impoverished country, set back even further by a massive 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. One of the poorer countries in the Western Hemisphere, 80 percent of Haiti’s population lives below the poverty line and 54 percent lives in extreme poverty.

Three-quarters of the country lives on less than $2 per day.

“We cannot stay in rescue mode,” said Michelle Keen, leader of the Bethel Baptist Church mission trip. “You have to get out of rescue mode and help the people become self-sustaining. … We really need to work more toward sustainability than rescue. Rescue is not always the best thing. That’s a learning process and a huge learning curve. It has been for me.”

Most kids don’t have cleats to play soccer.

Jenkins didn’t take his cleats to Haiti during his first trip. He never expected to play. As a part of something he calls Operation 828, Jenkins brought back 54 pairs of new cleats in 2013 during his second trip to Haiti – enough for every player on the local boys’ team and a few more for the neighborhood kids who aren’t on the team.

He expects to bring back another 50 pairs this year.

“It is my niche,” said Jenkins, who recently was named the 1-A Coach of the Year in girls’ soccer after leading Tarboro to the second round of the state playoffs. “I’m realizing now that as a soccer coach, it’s just amazing how broad God wants to use us. … I’m living that right now. It’s humbling because I don’t feel worthy to be used on that level. That’s the plan God has for me. I just walked into that cause.”

Jenkins had been on mission trips before 2010. He went to Costa Rica in 2006 and Rwanda in 2009. He had an immediate desire to help in Haiti after the earthquake.

He had no way of reaching the country, though.

Then, he spoke with Gaul, a student in his Civics and Economics class at the time, and found out that her church recently had started a mission trip. This will be Jenkins’ and Shaw’s third straight year on the trip and Gaul’s fourth.

“To think of people that have gone through so much tragedy in their lives and the way they are able to be so grateful and thankful for all that they have, it really causes me to look at my own life and question the way I live,” said Gaul, a senior at Tarboro High who will turn 18 on Monday. “… It also has made me want to give back even more.

“It has made me want to do more with my life.”

Gaul and Shaw will graduate just before the trip, but they won’t be taking the summer off before college. They’ll be joining a few dozen members of the mission group and traveling to Haiti from July 8 to July 16.

“Every time I come back, I’m more grateful for the little things that I have – a bed to sleep in and parents that care,” Shaw said. “… Every little thing, I’m just grateful because of the trip to Haiti.”

During the trip, members of the mission group will help build schools and will bring a medical team to provide care for the residents. They will distribute food, mostly rice and beans, and spend time at the local orphanage as well.

“It’s not just going down there and doing for, it’s working alongside them,” said Keen, who has been traveling to Haiti since 1997.

This year, the group’s focus will be on building a home for the man who is the sponsorship coordinator for a local school.

“For me, it’s everything,” said Keen, who was in Haiti during the 2010 earthquake. “If I could do it full time and not have to work here in the States, I would. It’s just part of the great commission of doing what the Lord has commanded us to do.”

The Biblical verse Romans 8:28 is at the root of almost everything Jenkins does, including the name of his project to bring cleats to Haitian youth. It reads, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Jenkins reads that to mean that it’s important to work with others for a common good.

That’s what he believes he has found with the Bethel Baptist mission group. He hopes that one day he’ll have the opportunity to do long-term mission work in Haiti – maybe even for a year.

For now, Jenkins practices mission work at home.

He tries to council young men and provides guidance to any student who walks into his classroom, greeting each one with the respect of a colleague.

“My most prized mission work goes on right here in my classroom,” said Jenkins, who has started a mentoring program called 828 Roundup in the Tarboro community. “… Mission work is 24/7 for me. You always want to make sure that you are practicing what you’re preaching. You want to make sure that what you are trying to sell to people, you yourself would be your greatest customer.”

He’ll soon leave the United States bound for Haiti for the third straight year. There, he will see Casseus – the boy who scrounged up $10 to take an exam, which Jenkins said Casseus “blew out of the water.” Casseus hasn’t had much schooling because education in Haiti is privatized. If parents can’t afford to send their children to school, they don’t go.

Casseus is one of that all-too-large, unlucky group.

When Jenkins left Haiti last year, he made Casseus a promise. Jenkins told Casseus that he would try to pay for the costs of his education – estimated by Jenkins at $300 per year.

Casseus wants to be a civil engineer.

“I’m going to do my best to make sure that he achieves that goal,” Jenkins said. “Who’s to say that this kid won’t grow up, get a good degree and change Haiti’s whole dynamic as we know it?”

Justin Hite can be reached at 407-9951 or jhite@rmtelegram.com