Sneakers for Benin
Early last year, Henry and Beth Cruz, both members of the Wagner College class of 1971, were sitting in the bleachers of the Spiro Sports Center, cheering on the Seahawks men’s basketball team. Residents of Ridgewood, New Jersey, the Cruzes rarely ever miss a Wagner home game.
That night, to raise awareness of breast cancer, the team was sporting hot pink sneakers. What, Beth wondered aloud, would happen to those sneakers after the game?
At the end of July 2013, that question brought Beth and Henry to the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Benin to the United Nations, on East 38th Street in Manhattan, to hand off several boxes of green, white, black — and pink — basketball sneakers.
With them was Naofall Folahan ’14, a Wagner senior international business major, a 6-foot-11-inch center for the Seahawks, and a native of the West African nation of Benin.
They met him last spring, when they were on campus to attend a reception for Wagner’s new basketball head coaches, Bashir Mason and Lisa Cermignano, and to pick up the hot pink shoes. Through Seahawk Assistant Coach Scott Smith, who is also a resident of Ridgewood, they had heard about a person in Ridgewood who regularly sends used athletic equipment to Central America. So, that’s where that batch of shoes was headed.
Coach Smith asked Naofall and a few other teammates to help load the shoes into Beth’s car.
Why couldn’t we send shoes to his country, Benin, Naofall asked.
“Good question,” said Henry Cruz, a semi-retired consultant to small business owners.
It was something Naofall had always wanted to do, he says, but he didn’t know how to make it happen. “I didn’t always have shoes as a kid,” he says. “Now I have like ten pairs.” According to the World Bank, one third of Benin’s population lives in poverty; it ranks 200th in the world in per capita GDP. Not many people there enjoy new sneakers on a regular basis, like the members of the Seahawks basketball team do.
Naofall’s father, who lives in Paris and has become a French citizen, has a business of making and selling eyeglasses, and has started a foundation to distribute eyeglasses to needy children in Benin. He agreed to distribute the sneakers through his foundation as well.
Over the 2012–13 basketball season, the sneakers started to pile up. Meanwhile, Henry and Beth, a former teacher who is now a school secretary in Ridgewood, looked for a way to get the sneakers to Benin. It wasn’t easy. After many inquiries through church connections, business networks, and companies like UPS came up empty — no one transported goods to Benin or knew how to do it, except at very high cost — Henry finally thought to try to Consulate in New York. Bienvenu Houngbedji, attaché and head of chancery, was happy to help.
At the shoe hand-off, Ambassador Thomas Adoumasse also came to greet the Wagner group and thank them for their donation. “When you have the time, you can do the trip to our country to see what the people do with your gift,” he told the Cruzes. “We need a good team of basketball in my country.”
The Cruzes have unofficially adopted not only the shoe donation program but also Naofall — whom they affectionately call Ming, the nickname he has acquired during his time with the Seahawks because his towering height is reminiscent of former NBA star Yao Ming. In his honor, they call their sneaker efforts Project Ming.
This fall, the Cruzes are also starting a mentoring program for Wagner student-athletes, which they are calling Beyond the Bench. In addition, Beth is beginning a term as president of the board of the Alumni Association. “What goes around has come around,” is how Beth explains their gifts back to their alma mater, and to its students from far and wide.
— Laura Barlament, Editor, Wagner Magazine
July 26, 2013