The Sanneh Foundation no longer runs drills across the Conway Recreation Center’s gymnasium floor, though it may not be long before the soccer balls return to the East Side community hub.

Instead, with most public schools closed for distance learning, the foundation embraced a two-fold mission, converting the St. Paul rec center into both a food-distribution hub and remote learning center that relies on WiFi donated by Comcast.


Students arrive with younger siblings in tow to attend their public school classes remotely and complete school work from desks separated by transparent plastic dividers spaced throughout the gym floor. The gym could fit up to 120 young people, though the foundation prefers to keep the number closer to 60 for social distancing.

With many schools now reopening for in-person learning, former Major League Soccer player Tony Sanneh expects enrollment in his school-away-from-school to drop by as much as half, making room for a return to sports programming in half the gym.

Still, some 30 students are likely to stick around, given their parents’ work schedules and fears of COVID-19. Some have said their grades have actually improved in the unusual new environment.

“Some kids have actually performed better in distance learning. We all learn differently,” said Sanneh, whose mother worked as a Ramsey County social worker for 42 years. “The jury is still out on everything (but COVID in schools is a concern). There are some charter schools that aren’t going back. We are encouraging people, if your school is open, (return to traditional classes).”


Since the start of the pandemic, Eric Stempinski has found his fleetness of foot comes in handy for more than just arranging youth soccer camps for the Sanneh Foundation.

On Mondays, while navigating around elementary students, he and his team of young workers deliver 100 meals to seniors and home-bound adults, on top of coordinating drive-up distribution for a Latino outreach effort in Burnsville that serves up to 500 families.

Tuesdays are spent distributing food to another 250 families at Conway, the neighborhood community center on St. Paul’s East Side where the Sanneh Foundation is currently based, on top of food delivery through partner agencies that serve the homeless.

By Wednesday, some eight or nine nonprofit and community partners such as Feeding Frogtown, the Camden Collective in North Minneapolis and an Oromo church are collecting boxes of ready-to-cook ingredients from the foundation, as well as recipes.

Thursdays are big, with 600 pre-cooked meals delivered to the homeless and the New Hope Church in St. Paul, among other sites. By Thursday evening, as many as 18 pallets of food leave Conway Rec for a warehouse location, from where they’ll be distributed to families gathering at Corcoran Park in North Minneapolis on Friday morning.


Much of the prepping, packing and delivery is handled by young people hired from St. Paul’s East Side, some of them former Sanneh athletes barely out of high school, others still in high school.

“Just like the camps, we get them to a level of competency where they can run the activities,” said Stempinski, who has shifted professional gears during the pandemic from online marketing to soccer coach to emergency food distributor virtually overnight.

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