Soccer and softball fields on the East Side of St. Paul are getting a major makeover this fall as crews install artificial turf and an inflatable dome.

The $9 million project by the Sanneh Foundation, a youth development nonprofit that largely works with low-income students of color, will boost year-round activities by creating seasonal indoor space alongside fields with shock pads to prevent concussions.

"It will probably be the safest field in Minnesota," said Tony Sanneh, the retired Major League Soccer player who started and leads the nonprofit. "Woodbury and the suburbs have things like this. We're investing in the neighborhood to build a first-class facility."

The project is part of $10 million in upgrades to the land and adjacent Conway Community Center, both of which the nonprofit leases from the city. The work also comes at a busy time during the pandemic.

Sanneh (pronounced SAW-nay) and his nonprofit have responded to the crisis by distributing free food to a growing number of families in need and, this month, started hosting students from St. Paul and other districts to have a safe place to do distance learning while their parents work.

"The community has never needed this before," Sanneh said, adding that disparities are widening as affluent parents can afford "learning pods" for their children while they work.

The Sanneh Foundation, which works with 10,000 kids a year, does much more than promote soccer, helping educate and empower kids from St. Cloud to St. Paul."The consensus is that we're a soccer organization or one big soccer camp," Sanneh said. "I don't think people recognize Minnesota talent a lot and I don't think they recognize Minnesota Black talent. But I hope people start looking at the merits of our work and really start to understand that we could be a vehicle, especially in this time, that's responsive and can make community change."

Growing youth programs

The foundation took over Conway Community Center in 2014 — one of eight nonprofits that run St. Paul rec centers. The city sought out the partnerships due to budget cuts after the recession, which led to some centers closing.

"What happens when you close a community center? Crime goes up," Sanneh said. "We want to create an equitable and safe space."

Some residents had mixed reactions about a nonprofit leasing the rec center then, said Betsy Mowry Voss, executive director of the Southeast Community Organization, formerly the District 1 Community Council.

"I know there are community members who feel as though the rec center was taken away from them," she said. "But I honestly don't think that the city had much choice ... the alternative is there's nothing."

The Sanneh Foundation's 15-year lease with the city until 2034 has the option to extend another 15 years if they make $8 million in improvements. They're already beyond that, making $10 million in improvements with the artificial turf fields and about $1 million in rec center upgrades such as a computer lab. The project is backed by $4.5 million from the state bonding bill, a $200,000 grant from the city and donations from individuals and foundations.

Some residents opposed the new fields and dome, saying it will increase traffic and be an eyesore. Mowry Voss said the district council, foundation and city are discussing solutions such as signs to direct motorists to off-street parking.

"Although there are some unhappy neighbors, the reality is that we can't just write off the number of kids and families the programs are serving," she said. "To have high quality athletic fields and to have a dome over here in our community, that's a pretty big deal; we don't have a lot of new things coming in that really benefit community."

The dome, which is about 150-yards-long, will always be accessible to the community, Sanneh said, including a track for older adults to walk on in the winter. The dome is expected to open Dec. 1 and the fields next spring.

"The Sanneh Foundation is a vital partner in supporting children and families," Mayor Melvin Carter said in a statement. "Reinvesting in their home at the Conway Community Center means expanding their ability to provide programming and an even greater impact on our community."

Soccer star to philanthropist

Sanneh, 49, towers over the kids with his 6-foot-2 frame.

Growing up on the East Side of St. Paul, public parks were his safe haven while his mother, a single parent, worked as a social worker.

When he started the foundation in 2003, he wanted to do more than focus on soccer, mapping out a dozen initiatives. "I decided I wanted to build an organization based on relationships, not soccer," he said.

After retiring from pro soccer in 2010, he became the full-time CEO, growing the foundation to an annual budget of $3 million with about 65 year-round employees. One is Jaron Whitaker, 29, who landed his first full-time job a week out of serving time in prison. A year later, he's grateful Sanneh gave him a second chance in life.

"This definitely got me off the streets and doing something positive," Whitaker said. "Without this job, I don't know where I'd be."

The nonprofit has expanded its programs over the years — from summer youth camps to a mentoring program called Dreamline that pays coaches to work with low-income students in St. Paul, North St. Paul and St. Cloud. Another program in Haiti works with about 320 kids each year.

Sanneh has bigger ambitions, juggling leading the nonprofit with taking classes to complete his bachelor's degree in education policy — aided by a prestigious Bush Foundation fellowship he won in 2019. He's planning to buy an office building for the nonprofit with affordable housing.

"It pushes me, much like being an athlete, to keep going," he said of his work. "I want to help more kids."