Fans buy gear for Haiti's Special Olympics soccer team

The Haitian Special Olympics soccer team celebrates with fans after their match at UCLA on Tuesday. On Saturday, some fans had an impromptu collection to get them new equipment. Robert Beck for ESPN

LOS ANGELES -- Last Saturday morning, on the opening day of the Special Olympics World Games, a men's soccer team from Haiti took the field at UCLA's Drake Stadium for a divisioning match that would determine which level of competition the Haitians would face moving forward.

Spectators, both local and international, many with no ties to either team, filled the aluminum bleachers. Haiti's opponent is not important to this story. Nor, for that matter, was the score.

As the match began, the spectators cringed. Not because the Haitians were dwarfed by their opponents and obviously overmatched. Truth is, the talent disparity wasn't that large. But when your foe can stop and juke when he wants to, and you look like you are running on ice, even the slightest gap becomes formidable.

Jenifher Albeno, a 29-year-old former college soccer captain from Long Beach, was among those watching from the stands. She, like everyone else, immediately noticed that the Haitians were not wearing uniforms, but white T-shirts and mismatched shorts. Still, that wasn't what broke her heart. Where are their cleats? she thought.

As one Haitian after another slipped and fell on the natural grass, Albeno was appalled. "I looked around and everyone either had tears in their eyes or they were looking away because they didn't want to watch this," she said. "Who cares about jerseys -- as a soccer player, cleats are your most valuable possession."

Sixty yards away, on the other end of the bleachers, Mia, a 15-year-old high school sophomore who spent much of her youth in foster care, felt the same way. She broke down and started bawling. "I don't cry much, but it was kind of like an instant reaction," Mia said. "I couldn't watch the game at all."

Simultaneously and unbeknownst to one another, both young women decided to take action. Albeno, her voice cracking as she held back tears, got up in front of the bleachers. "Does anybody else want to help Haiti get shoes?" she yelled.

She hoped people might offer $5. They threw twenties and tens by the dozen. Those who didn't have cash ran to a nearby ATM to get some. A little girl handed Albeno a $1 bill. Before she knew it, she was holding more than $700.

In the stands, Vanessa Kromer, a vice president for a local concert promotions company who was volunteering, texted friends and asked if they would donate. When they said yes, she fronted the money on site.

Albeno took her fistful of cash to an information booth under the scoreboard. She got there just as Mia was asking an event official how she and her fellow students, who attended as part of a college-prep program -- the First Star UCLA Bruin Guardian Scholars Academy -- could help. They realized they were both trying to do the same thing and got to talking about how they might team up, at which point Kromer walked up to Albeno.

"Whatever you have in your hand, I'll double it," Kromer said.

That offer -- backed by Kromer's company's CFO, JR Ewing, who was in the stands as well -- grew into an offer to foot whatever remained of the bill. They ended up donating $1,995.

After the game, someone brought a piece of paper to the Haitian coach, Bony Georges, to get the players' sizes. While they waited for the list to come back, Mia and her program's former director, Yolanda Wright, were talking about the serendipitous turn of events when UCLA residential life program coordinator JonJon Junpradub overheard their conversation and sprang to action.

He got people in his office to donate to the fund and rustled up a collection of shirts, water bottles and bags from UCLA. Around 2 p.m., a group including Mia, Albeno, Wright, Kromer and Junpradub went to two local sporting goods stores to buy the gear. One customer heard what they were doing and handed Junpradub $100.

They found out later that Haiti did have uniforms, but they were sent to USC instead of UCLA. But that didn't change the scene the next morning, when dozens who'd been involved the day before showed up to present what they purchased to Haiti's players before their next match. They laid out the cleats and apparel on metal benches and watched as the Haitians' faces lit up. Mia, whose father was born and raised in Haiti, made a sign that read in Creole: "Have fun, keep playing with heart."

"They just kept saying, 'Thank you,' and I remember seeing them run out with their cleats not even fully on," Mia said. "They were just running, so excited. It got to all of us."

As part of their college-prep program, Mia and her fellow students receive $200 to donate to a cause of their choosing in the fall. At least six have decided to give that money to Haiti's soccer team, Wright said.

Tuesday afternoon, Haiti took the field again, and again the younger, smaller players were crushed by a superior opponent. After the game, they were crestfallen. Then Mia showed up. Their faces brightened.

Last weekend's gesture will stay with the players long after they leave Los Angeles, Georges said.

"I saw the joy, I saw the happiness in their eyes," the coach said. "It was a moment for them to share with those people, and get to know them. Even though they didn't have something to give back, they were sharing their smiles and their appreciation."