Seven years after she started a soccer team for immigrant and refugee students, Lauren Mednick helped send a first batch of players to college—and prepared to help other kids follow.
Mednick announced that goal at a fundraiser this week for the not-for-profit she started, Elm City Internationals, a soccer program combined with after-school help.
For the past seven years, she has been working with a single group of 14 boys from eight foreign countries, supporting them through school and on the Elm City Internationals soccer team. Now all 14 young men are starting out college careers.
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro and some 50 guests packed the front room of Caseus Fromagerie Bistro Monday evening to raise money for those students’ college tuition. They also heard Mednick announce a new goal: To grow Elm City Internationals from an all-volunteer effort to a permanent organization that brings in sends more international kids on the path to college.
A trio of Elm City alums, Marco Olmedo (pictured), Rubiel Rodriguez, and Facinet Haidara, greeted guests at the door of the popular restaurant on Trumbull Street. They all found Mednick about seven years ago when she was putting together a soccer team. The team started with three kids at Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services who had been struggling in school. Mednick learned they were great at soccer. She put together a team. By focusing their energy on soccer, she helped them succeed in academics. (Click here to read more about their journey.)
Now all 14 kids are freshmen and sophomores in college. Two are studying in Mexico. Others ended up at Santa Clara University in California; Sage College in Albany, and Monroe College in New Rochelle, N.Y.
Olmedo, Rodriguez and Haidara stayed close to home. Rodriguez, who’s 19, of Tlaxcala, Mexico, is starting out at Gateway Community College. Haidara, who’s 19, of Guinea in West Africa, is studying sociology at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU). Olmedo, who’s 20, of Puebla, Mexico, is studying physical education at SCSU.
They don’t play soccer with Mednick anymore. They do stay in touch—with each other, and with her. That’s because the group has become like “family,” the players said. Besides coaching soccer and helping with homework, Mednick has been heavily involved in her students’ lives.
“Every time one of us needs something—a ride, advice—she’s there,” said Rodriguez. “At any time. It could be 12 o’clock at night.”
Mednick (pictured) took her players on college tours, helped them apply to college, and connected them to soccer teams and scholarships.
Mednick recently flew out to California with one of her players, Sergio Olmedo-Ramirez, who got a full academic scholarship to Santa Clara University. She said she stays in touch with each player two times a week.
“We call her a second mother,” said Haidara.
In part because some of them are “Dreamers”—children of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as kids, and thus are ineligible for federal financial aid—many of the students faced daunting gaps in paying for college.
Last year Mednick’s organization raised $39,000 to pay for her students close those tuition gaps. On Monday she began raising another $35,000 to send them to college for another year.
So far the organization has been relying solely on volunteers like Amy Neale (pictured), a talented soccer player who who along with her husband, Matt, has served as a coach and tutor over the years. Mednick has never been paid. She announced she aims to raise another $100,000 to make the organization permanent, with a full-time, paid director, so it can begin with a new group of students next fall.
U.S. Rep. DeLauro added her firepower to the nascent fundraising campaign.
DeLauro introduced herself as a family friend of the Mednicks: Her mother, Luisa, served with Lauren Mednick’s dad, Steve, on the Board of Aldermen.
She applauded Lauren Mednick for her work. “When I witness what’s happening in Washington, D.C.” with the federal shutdown, she said, “they could take an example from you and what you’ve done.”
“This is about a life-changing experience for first-generation young people,” DeLauro said, “and it all started on the soccer field.”
DeLauro (pictured) said she empathizes with kids like Olmedo, Rodriguez, and Haidara.
“I’m first-generation,” DeLauro said. Her dad never made it past the 7th grade. Her mom started working at age 14 and had to take night classes to earn her high-school degree, she said. She said her parents never would have dreamed that their daughter would make it to the U.S. Congress.
“We know there is income inequality, and the way around that is education,” DeLauro said.
Too many kids graduate from college saddled by debt, she added. She urged the room to support Mednick’s efforts: “As much as it helps them, it gives you a sense of power that you can help change lives.”
Spotted in the crowd were former city economic development officer Tony Bialecki, former mayoral candidate Matt Nemerson, and High School in the Community teacher Chris Kafoglis, a former Wilbur Cross High School soccer coach and new member of the Elm City board.
The group raised $3,470 at Monday’s event, according to Mednick.
Olmedo, an aspiring gym teacher and soccer coach, said Elm City Internationals is paying the vast majority of his tuition at SCSU. He’s also working at a downtown bar to help pay his bills.
If the organization didn’t help out financially, he said, “I don’t know if I would be in school.”
To donate to Elm City Internationals, click here.