Players PromiseJun 15, 2018

Stephen Sunday's Story of Fighting On and Giving Back

Nigeria is an emerging economic power. It is the most populous African nation and ranks amongst the top 25 of economies in the world. However, it still lags far behind in terms of life expectancy, per-capita income and education. Sectarian violence and poor governance, particularly in the northern part of the country, mean that most of the population still lives in poverty. Children and women are particularly affected, and the situation is showing few signs of improvement.

This is the place where Stephen Sunday and his wife Mirian grew up and this is the place where they are working hard to give something back.

Stephen Sunday, or “Sunny”, is a successful international soccer player. He played for a number of clubs in Europe, including UEFA Champions League contender Valencia and spent time with Spain’s U20's National Team. He was also called up to the Nigerian national team in 2010, before eventually signing with Real Salt Lake in 2016. He has built an amazing career despite an incredibly challenging start.

Sunny’s childhood was not easy. In a story all too common in Nigeria, he and his family often struggled to find the basics. “I know what it is to not have food to eat.” he remembered, “I know what it is to not have water to drink. When I was little sometimes we couldn’t afford bread and we never could afford bottled water. Life was tough. It didn’t give me everything at first. It made me suffer, it made me fight for it.” So, when an opportunity arose to leave and chase his soccer dreams, Sunny jumped at it.

The beginning of the journey is a familiar story, and for many others less fortunate than Sunny, a sad one. An agent approached Sunny in Nigeria and told him if he could get a visa and make his way to France, he could find Sunny a spot on a team. “To get a visa in Nigeria was very difficult,” Sunny recalled, “But in the end, I got a visa, and I traveled to France.” However, like so many hopeful kids, the agent was nowhere to be found when Sunny finally arrived in France. “I was calling this guy, but unfortunately he never took my call. So I was there and I was frustrated. I was 15 or 16 years old then. So I said ‘Ok, what is the next thing to do?’ because I’m here, and I don’t know anyone.”

Even if I didn’t have anything to eat, I would still train."

Eventually, he got a hold of some people he knew in Spain who offered him a place to stay if he could get there. So, Sunny moved into a room with 8 other young men and began living life the best he could while training hard and nourishing the flame of hope. “When we were all living together in the home of my friend, sometimes we wouldn’t have anything to eat.” Sunny recalls, “Even if I didn’t have anything to eat, I would still train. Even in the winter, in the cold, I would still train. I would just take care of myself. I knew it was going to come, that’s why I was preparing myself.”

That effort finally paid off at a tournament for immigrants where Sunny showed his quality in front of the right people at the right time. He met an agent who introduced him to a team, and in 2005 he signed his first professional contract. “All the while, I never called my family, because I don’t want to make them cry. They already knew that I left, but they didn’t know the situation. Of course, they were worried about me already.” Sunny remembered, “I didn’t call until I had a professional contract. The club called me and told me ‘Ok Sunny, next year we are going to give you a professional contract.’ That’s when I called my family. They were all so happy.”

“Our mission is to empower families with kids and empower them with basic skills so we can provide them with a better life.”

Sunny went on to work his way up through the ranks and to establish himself as a professional. With that came better wages and the comforts that come with success. But neither he or his wife ever forgot where they came from. “In Nigeria, we have a lot of kids that are in need. We need to put food on the table for them because they can’t even afford even bread or water.” Sunny said, “That’s why my wife and I decided to see how we can help. That’s why we decided that everything I get from my wages we have to share.”

This sharing takes a variety of forms but is largely about getting much-needed supplies into Nigeria. The specific target often changes based on where the couple sees a need but the general desire to help is consistent.  Mirian, who spent her childhood in the troubled northern part of Nigeria, has been the boots on the ground when it comes to the couple’s charity work. “Our mission is to empower families with kids and empower them with basic skills so we can provide them with a better life.” Mirian said, “I’m trying presently to help homeless kids to get them shelter, and a family that can give them love, send them to school, help them with the basic things.”

Up until now the couple has largely self-funded and self-organized their outreach efforts. Their passion for their home country and their drive to give back didn’t allow them to wait until it was perfectly organized. They simply saw something that needed doing and did it. They do, however, hope that they can grow it into something bigger.

There is obviously still a journey ahead of them as they build this philanthropic effort, but they know what’s at stake. They know exactly the kinds of things kids in Nigeria are going through because they have been there. And, most importantly, they know they can help. “I’m telling you right now, there are kids that are suffering.” Sunny said, “My wife and I, we’ve really spent a lot of time with the kids. We really think we can make something out of nothing, bring a smile to their faces.”

The couple is looking into an office where they can base their Mirian & Stephen Charitable Trust operations and some warehouse space where they can store the supplies they want to send to Nigeria. They also hope to be able to bring in some funding to supplement what Sunny himself is able to provide, and they have built up a lot of proof that they are people who can be trusted to do good things with what they are given. “The way that we do it is we start first and then when people see what we are doing they can say ‘Ok, this is real.’” Sunny said, “When they see that it’s real they can ask how they can donate.”

Sunny and Mirian are looking for support as they continue to grow their efforts for Nigeria. You can follow them on Twitter and Facebook to find out more about their current initiatives.