Emilio Soto and Abdullahi Islow, Ryogoku Soccer Academy; photo by Nikki Overfelt Chifalu, Startland News

By: Nikki Overfelt Chifalu, Startland News

Vu Nguyen considers MADE MOBB to be a creative hub, he shared. Two of the latest collaborators with Crossroads-based streetwear brand are students at Ryogoku Soccer Academy.

“Everybody’s invited,” said Nguyen, who co-founded MADE MOBB — one of Startland News’ Kansas City Startups to Watch in 2023 — in 2013 and owns the business alongside Mark Launiu and Jesse Phouangphet.

Nguyen is a mentor for the soccer academy in the historic Northeast and recently teamed up with sophomore Abdullahi Islow and eighth grader Emilio Soto on the students’ passion project: providing resources for the unhoused population in their neighborhood.

After Islow reached out, the team at MADE MOBB guided the students as they designed and screen printed T-shirts to sell at First Fridays to raise money for their project. The youth organized an event where they had food, drinks, hygiene packs, haircuts, and a place to kick around a soccer ball.

“How do you say no to that?” Nguyen asked. “I think Abdul was 14 at the time and Emilio was 12 and they’re thinking about their community more than anybody. Because I know when I was 12 or 14, I was not thinking about anything but myself. To see these young kids be able to really give back to the community before themselves, how can you not?”

“I grew up in the Northeast,” he added. “So this spot holds a special place in my heart.”

Mentors have their backs

The students having the support of local businesses and organizations means everything, noted Brad Leonard, who founded Ryogoku — for boys in grades 6 through 12 — in 2021.

“(The students) really drive everything here — every decision — and then we just try to throw as much support as we can behind it,” he continued. “They had this great idea of how they could partner with local businesses — like MADE MOBB, the Don Bosco Centers, the Mattie Rhodes Center donated some things. So it’s about them having a great experience but also having the entire community support and back them.”

“Vu is obviously one of their mentors, but I think they have tons of other people watching them, supporting them — whether it’s financially, educationally, you name it — there’s people that are in their corner and have their back,” he added.

Each student picks a passion project based on one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Leonard shared. Abdullahi’s is centered around ending poverty by providing resources for those without houses. 

“I live in the Northeast, so I just want to help my community out,” the 15-year-old said.

Emilio’s passion project focuses on good health and well-being, specifically helping those in poverty have access to better mental and physical health opportunities.

“When I was growing up, we would drive around the city and I would just see a whole lot of houseless people just sitting down and not doing anything, just waiting for money or something to happen,” the 13-year-old explained. “Then I was researching with my mom and my mom told me that houseless people that aren’t active can lose 10 years of their life. I just thought that doing this event — helping them by playing soccer, my passion — I thought that this could help them in their physical health.”

Abdullahi and Emilio teamed up for an event at Independence Boulevard Christian Church — where they have classes through Ryogoku Soccer Academy — calling the effort a success, and drawing about 50 people. Emilio’s parents grilled hot dogs; they had a prize wheel to spin that included things like hats, T-shirts, sunglasses, water bottles, flashlights, and gift cards; and Jimmy Nguyen — Vu Nguyen’s cousin — with TB Hair Design in Columbus Park and Amy Harper with Jack’s Studio KC in the Westside provided free haircuts.

“We had a fair amount of people come, which was good, because then we got to help them and focus on what they were doing to see how we could help,” Emilio said.

A lot of the funds for the project came from the T-shirts designed by Abdullahi — inspired by his passion to help others — and sold at a First Fridays event at MADE MOBB.

“I was thinking it was the world falling apart and my hands helping the world out,” he noted of the design.

Nguyen said the team at MADE MOBB helped the duo digitize the image for the T-shirt and showed them how to screen print the apparel, but that’s it.

“My whole thing with mentoring them was saying, ‘I can help you guys. I’m not gonna do it for you guys,’” he explained. “Like Brad said, these entirely are their steps. Everything they decided to do from the dates to the designs and everything is all them.”

Vu Nguyen, MADE MOBB, Abdullahi Islow, Emilio Soto, and Brad Leonard, Ryogoku Soccer Academy; photo by Nikki Overfelt Chifalu, Startland News

A solution in soccer

Both Abdullahi and Emilio have attended Ryogoku since its beginning and said they liked starting and ending their school day with soccer practice, the freedom they get, and getting to help out in the community.

Leonard shared that he was inspired to launch the soccer academy after starting an international school in Tokyo in 2017 with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as the curriculum.

“The way they do their education, It was just a very active approach, very trusting of the students,” he explained. “I was coming out of the charter school world, where I found it to be more constrained with a lot of systems in place in comparison to an international model. So I wanted to bring that here.”

After spending time in the Northeast, he noted, he knew he wanted to incorporate soccer.

“There’s two things that I think everyone in the Northeast loves,” he added. “They love their community and they love soccer. I haven’t met anybody that doesn’t like those two things in this community. So I thought, ‘How can we take the education model incorporating those two things?’”

Now entering its third year, Leonard said, Ryogoku has 20 students with families from 16 different countries.

“People are starting to notice the work they’re doing,” he noted. “I think what sets us apart is, it’s not about the adults here. We put all of our trust into them. We listen to them.”

This article is republished here thanks to our partnership with Startland News through the KC Media Collective.