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Soccer players change lives of girls through sport

Friends Joanna Lohman of Silver Spring, Md., and Lianne Sanderson of Lewisham, England, have traveled the world doing what they love: playing soccer. Between the two of them, they've played professionally in Sweden, Japan, England and the U.S., and now both suit up for Espanyol in Spain's top league.

Although they hope to continue playing soccer for a bit longer, they now have their hearts fixed on something greater than just their careers: a global soccer academy. The two have founded the JoLi Academy, a for-profit business that has a philanthropic bent.

Their first project will start in January in Jharkhand, a state in eastern India, with a clinic and mentorship program for girls.

Lohman and Sanderson were originally traveling to India to visit Lohman's brother, who works for the United States embassy in Chennai. They saw a great opportunity to reach out to soccer players during their time in the country. They quickly realized how much their skills and time are needed at the grassroots level.

"In the richer areas of the country, running a clinic wasn't that big of a deal, versus going to help the kids that have no cleats, no socks, no shoes," said Sanderson, 23. "We want to come in and help the people that we can impact the most."

According to Yuwa, a charitable group that works in the region, Jharkhand is one of the most dangerous places in the world for human trafficking and violence. An estimated 30,000 people, mostly young women, are trafficked from the state each year. Girls in Jharkand have little to no education and few options other than becoming young mothers or victims of trafficking.

"Our goal is furthering education and improving life through soccer," Lohman said. "We'll be teaching these girls to compete, work as a team and strive for a goal, thus unlocking their potential and changing their lives through soccer."

JoLi hopes to maximize its impact in Jharkhand by teaming up with Yuwa, which has been successfully working toward building a team sports platform for girls for the past three years. They also will be bringing in the All India Football Federation for the first time, and the hope is that the groups will work together to further women's soccer in the country.

The academy will focus on soccer, but its lessons will be intended to reach girls in ways beyond sports.

"Playing soccer definitely made me who I am," said Sanderson, a former member of England's national team. "It gave me confidence and self-belief. My family always said 'Have a dream. It's within your capability to do this. If you believe you can, and you're positive, then you can.' I want to teach the girls those same things."

Lohman, 29, agrees. "I think it's an absolute God-send that I've played sports," said Lohman, who starred at Penn State. "Playing soccer, or just being an athlete, has had a huge impact on my life: my self-motivation, my ambition. It's helped me with the confidence I have and being authentic and honest in the way that I carry things out. We want these girls to think, 'Wow this is who I can be. This is what I can achieve.' We want to give them hope, give them an outlet, show them there's more to life than what meets the eye."

In addition to bringing their experience and passion, Lohman and Sanderson plan to bring over essential equipment, such as sports bras, socks and nutritional supplements. They'll have a translator onsite, even though some of the girls speak basic English. An Indian film crew will be on hand to shoot footage of the trip for a documentary.

"The Yuwa girls play soccer with virtually no funding on a borrowed patch of field just like the great players of the world did when they were children -- Messi, Rooney and Marta," Lohman said. "We hope to make a short documentary about this these girls, and we have high aspirations to enter it into film festivals around the world."

The trip is expected to cost around $25,000.

Although this first project will just be for the current 200 Yuwa girls and 25 AIFF members, the women hope to expand it to more girls and other countries.

"We're not going to completely change India on this trip alone," Sanderson said, "but hopefully we can help the individuals and set something in motion."

Lohman added, "This is just the start. Building relationships, connecting people and figuring out the best way to help. I think this will be something we'll do for the rest of our lives."