The girls soccer team playing in St. Paul this week stood out for two reasons: The coach was an elegantly dressed Somali woman. The players slamming the ball down the field were all Muslim girls, many in traditional head coverings.

Coach Fartun Osman, a rare female professional basketball player in her homeland, has made it her life mission to develop the athletic and leadership skills of Muslim girls, who she says often are overlooked by traditional sports teams because of cultural differences.

The young girls on the field may well be Minnesota's only all-Muslim girl soccer team, said Osman, a Woodbury mother who finds time to coach three teams and serve as a mentor to the girls and their families.

"People look at these girls and assume if you're a Muslim girl with a hijab [head scarf], you can't play sports," said Osman, a tall, thin woman with a ready smile. "But they can. They play soccer and basketball and love it. I help these girls have self-confidence and be leaders, too."

Osman is one of six Minnesotans honored by the McKnight Foundation on Friday for demonstrating the "life-changing difference that one person can make." She received its Virginia McKnight Binger Human Services Award, something that didn't surprise the girls on the field last week.

"She tells us we will make history," said 11-year-old Sumira Sheikh, wearing a purple scarf, blue shorts and a smile on her face after the soccer game. "She really understands how we feel, how hard it is sometimes."

Former pro player

The journey to become a Minnesota mega-volunteer started in 1996, when Osman fled the violence in her homeland, eventually settling in Minnesota. She was 20, had two young children and a background very distinct from most Somali moms here. She had played on the Somali national basketball team, she said, traveling to other African nations for competitions.

"I really liked soccer, but they didn't have any girls soccer team then," she said, "so I took up basketball and track and field."

After working at a bank, Osman took a job at the Urban Youth Leadership Connection in St. Paul in 1996, a place she felt "I belonged." It was then that she began working with students, in particular Muslim girls, and understanding their challenges.

They looked different from their peers. Ate different food. Spoke a different language at home. Often struggled at school because of their language.

Athletics, Osman believed, could be the ticket to building confidence and bridging cultures.

"That's why I stepped up," she said. "I knew it would be hard work, as a single mother, but I knew my community needed me."

More than a coach

But Osman doesn't just coach soccer. She organizes a tutoring program for the girls, acts as a mentor, drives the girls to and from practice, and is a cultural bridge for their families, said Jean-Paul Bigirindavyi, executive director of the Urban Youth Leadership Connection.

"It's extraordinary, the level of commitment she gives the girls," he said.

Osman eventually began working in the athletics department at Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul, where she does similar work. But she continued her volunteer work at Urban Youth Leadership Connection -- up to 15 to 20 hours a week, Bigirindavyi said.

"It's amazing what she does here," said Bill Wilson, executive director of Higher Ground Academy. "She goes around the city, recruiting girls for soccer. She makes it her business to take every girl home after each game. That's a lot of houses to go to."

Osman is respected by parents and children alike, he said, and is a unique role model for Muslim girls.

Ramla Mohamud, a 9-year-old on Osman's team, agreed.

"She is always there to help you," said Mohamud, standing next to Osman after the game. "She encourages us to be better. She is like our next mother."

Osman, 35, is mother to four of her own children, two boys now in college and two girls still at home. While they didn't always appreciate her considerable volunteer work, they are "very proud" of the award, she said.

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511