COLUMBUS, Ohio – Eugene Harmon grew up playing soccer barefoot on the street of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia in West Africa.

Collecting rocks as goalposts and marking boundaries with sticks, Harmon said the sport taught him not to give up easily.

Years of practice paid off. When he moved to the United States in 2009 to pursue higher education, a soccer coach at Bucks County Community College in eastern Pennsylvania invited him to join the college's soccer program and offered him a scholarship. He ultimately completed his associate degree in computer science in four years.

Now, living in Columbus and earning his living as an IT specialist, the 33-year-old wants to give back to his community.

Two years ago, he started a soccer program called the Zion Astro Football Academy ( in his home country to remotely mentor about 60 Liberian children aged 12 to 15. So far, Harmon said he has paid tens of thousands of dollars out of his own pocket to keep the program running.

"Soccer is the most popular sport in Africa, so I decided to use it as an instrument to get the kids' attention and push them to stay in school."

Harmon was born into a 14-year-long civil war that decimated Liberia's infrastructure and social fabric. His mother did everything to keep him safe, but he saw on the news how children were displaced, assaulted and killed on a daily basis, he said. Some were recruited as child soldiers to fight with warring parties, according to Human Rights Watch.

The war ended in 2003 — when Harmon was still living there — but its impact was long-lasting, he said. When he went back to Liberia to visit his family in 2016, he saw how the country's youth continued to suffer from poverty and an unstable living environment.

"The parents would leave home in the morning for work and be away the whole day," Harmon said. "The kids have no direction. They just do whatever they see. Some of them have nothing to eat during the day and would sell drugs to get food before their parents come home."

In 2019, he enlisted the help of five organizers in Liberia to create a nonprofit soccer program in Ganta, a city three hours away from the country's capital. The goal, he said, not only was to give children an opportunity to practice the sport but also to motivate them to continue their education.

"The policy is: If you're not a student, you can't play soccer in the organization," Harmon said.

Besides hosting soccer practices three times a week, the program also requires participants to have a daily reading schedule, attend regular speaker events and engage in community service projects every weekend. While the five staff members in Liberia are in charge of organizing activities on the ground, Harmon talks to the kids via Zoom every Thursday to keep them motivated.

It costs Harmon about $1,800 a month to rent the soccer pitch, compensate the local organizers and pay for hospital bills when the kids get injured during practice.

The kids in Liberia are hoping to follow Harmon's path and attend an American college on a sports scholarship. But it's a tough process, Harmon said. He has not yet found collegiate coaches in the U.S. who are willing to support the children.

"But my primary goal is to give them an education, and it doesn't matter if they are in Liberia or America," Harmon said. I just want them to know that they don't have to be on the street to survive."