LAKELAND — Jason Old became smitten with the Honduran island of Roatan during the three years he spent there as a semiprofessional soccer player in the early 2000s.
Old, an assistant professor of Spanish at Southeastern University in Lakeland, has returned regularly to Roatan since his playing days ended. But each trip has been bittersweet.
"Every time I go back, it breaks my heart," Old said, describing how a lack of opportunities leads many Honduran youth into drugs, unplanned pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases.
Such disappointments prompted Old to co-found a charitable group dedicated to giving Honduran children more hopeful futures. Created in 2008, CAN Futbol Foundation (or CANFF) uses soccer to steer children away from pitfalls in the impoverished Central American nation.
The group's main strategy is simple and apparently effective. CANFF offers soccer gear as a reward to students who maintain good grades.
"They'll play barefoot, but everybody loves a brand-new pair of shoes, or shorts, socks or a shirt," Old said. "It motivates them to go to school and do well in school. They see it as a means to an end, the end being the rewards. Obviously we recognize the means is more important, so they slowly but surely begin to take school serious."
CANFF operates under the auspices of Intensive Heart Ventures, a nonprofit group based in California. Old sits on that group's board of directors, and the president of Intensive Heart Ventures, Joseph Natale, is a co-founder of CANFF. Tony Rosado of Tampa is the other co-founder.
CANFF has three representatives in Honduras, including two youth soccer coaches. Old said CANFF cooperates with existing schools and soccer leagues in Roatan.
The group's name comes from the initials of Natale's late son, Carlos Almendarez Natale, whom he had adopted from Roatan. But Old said the name has another meaning, suggesting "I can."
Old, 31, travels to Roatan, an island off the northern coast of Honduras, four times a year during breaks in Southeastern's academic calendar. He visited in early February to help oversee the program's annual soccer tournament.
Rosado, a fourth-grade teacher in Tampa, said the organization benefits from Old's reputation as a former local soccer player.
"I always say he's the crux," Rosado said. "What's awesome about Jason … is he's the spokesperson and down there he knows everybody and they trust him. He played soccer down there, and soccer is so big that in a way — they don't idolize him but they look up to him.
"And because he's Caucasian and looks like a surfer dude, he stands out like a sore thumb. We'll go back to some remote place to play soccer and they'll call out his name. He has that rapport with the people that without him we wouldn't have at all."
Old said CANFF has had a measurable impact on the children of Roatan in a short time. He said when the foundation first gave out academic awards last spring, only 20 or so of the 150 kids maintained the required 83 point average at school. At the next ceremony last summer, more than 60 had the minimum average.
The improvement prompted CANFF leaders to raise the minimum average to 87 percent, something they announced at the recent tournament. Old said many of the students won't be financially able to go on to college, but those who devote themselves to academics will improve their prospects of finding a decent job after high school.
At the recent soccer tournament, CANFF leaders unveiled a new initiative. They challenged each team to create a service project to benefit their community. Old said the teams with the most successful projects will be honored at the summer gathering.
While Honduras has been CANFF's main focus, the group also operates in the Tampa area and is establishing a small program in Kenya.
Old said CANFF receives donations of gear from the U.S. Soccer Foundation as well as a soccer club in Hillsborough County and even a soccer team in Alaska. He said corporations and individuals have made monetary donations, and he said all the money goes directly into the program.
"We've got a long road ahead of us, but I'm okay with it," Old said