We Play to Win: Empowering At-Risk African Girls Through Sports

A lifelong passion for soccer and health prompted one Nigerian woman to pay it forward.

Posted: 06/24/2013 09:00 AM EDT

Kasia Muoto discovered her passion for soccer at an extremely early age.

“I started playing in my mama’s womb,” she told BET.com. “In Africa, you come out the womb with a ball.”

As founder of the non-profit organization We Play to Win, the Nigerian-born native has come full circle by instilling her lifelong love of the game in a younger generation of African girls. Since launching in 2008, We Play to Win has provided free youth development and empowerment sports camps to hundreds of African orphans and marginalized youth.

The small, volunteer-based organization has collaborated with athletes like Tommie Harris of the Chicago Bears and garnered support from international soccer star Kanu and world champion runner Khadevis Robinson. But for Muoto, the journey has been anything but smooth.

A short-lived bout of polio prevented a young Muoto from running and playing alongside her brothers. Despite her late start, she soon reveled in her innate athletic capabilities. Muoto’s outstanding performance on her Nigerian boarding school’s soccer team attracted scouts, leading to her recruitment for the national women’s soccer team camp. At 16 years old, she was faced with the difficult decision of choosing between playing in the inaugural 1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup in China and attending the University of Pennsylvania on a full scholarship.

“You’ve got to be educated to create a change,” said Muoto about her decision to attend college.

Exhaustion from eight years of working in Manhattan’s financial sector and frustration with the impenetrable sports industry steered Muoto to Los Angeles. Her current senior leadership position at a health care company has allowed Muoto to pursue her interest in physical health. Yet, founding We Play to Win reintroduced Muoto’s first love back into her life in a meaningful way.

This past May, more than 100 girls attended the most recent We Play to Win camp held at Muoto’s hometown of Benin City. Located in the southern Edo State of Nigeria, the port city has become an infamous destination for human trafficking, particularly forced prostitution. Muoto understood the importance of empowering young girls in the area not only through soccer and exercise, but through discussions on health and wellness as well.

“They’re considered nothing by society,” she said. “They’re house help.”

Generous contributions from a corporate Nigerian sponsor — a first for the organization — and support from other local businesses and volunteers further validated the need to impact the girls of Benin City. Three days of hopping through agility ladders, creating vision boards, enduring sit-ups, and kicking soccer balls produced a noticeable change in the participants.

Recalling her own fascination with the Olympics and medal ceremonies, Muoto replicated the ceremony on the final day for the enthusiastic young girls, each of whom were honored with “blinged out” We Play to Win medals. The participants testified to the boost of confidence and self-value that the past-three days had instilled in them. Now back in the United States, Muoto has already begun to reflect on her experience in Benin City and the evident impression We Play to Win left on the participants and their community.

“If we raise leaders who can pay it forward, and they raise leaders who can pay it forward," said Muoto, "we’re much further along than if we didn’t try at all.”

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(Photo: Courtesy We Play to Win)

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