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Jenae Hyde
Head Coach Kalani Sitake adresses the Harlem Jets players in Harlem, New York on June 22. (Jenae Hyde)

BYU football Head Coach Kalani Sitake has had a desire to give his players service opportunities outside of BYU athletics and personally funded endeavors for years. In 2016, he began contemplating organizing his own charity, but knew that in order to bring his idea to life he’d need some help.

Sitake reached out to former BYU football staff member Duane Busby, who served as the administrative assistant to former Head Coach LaVell Edwards for five years and retired from BYU as the director of football operations in 2014. 

Although Busby had vowed to spend his retirement somewhere with palm trees, he stayed in Utah Valley to help Sitake start and run the More2Life Foundation.

“The foundation came about because we wanted something to help promote and fund our players’ service and charity work, and they didn’t really have a vehicle for that,” Sitake said. “So, the goal was to provide them pretty much limitless opportunities to do service.”

The foundation’s name is a reminder that there is more to life than what people may know or focus on, like football for the BYU players, and the “2” is a representation that you can always think of others outside of yourself, Sitake said.

After he was appointed BYU football’s head coach in 2016, Sitake said he met with Edwards every week of that first year. During his visits, Sitake said Edwards expressed excitement about the service BYU football was doing as a coaching staff and team.

Sitake explained that Edward’s love and connections to Harlem helped inspire the More2Life Foundation’s service in the area. The foundation made its third trip to Harlem in June 2019.

Patti and LaVell Edwards stand with President Gordon B. Hinckley as he announces the BYU football stadium name change in LaVell’s honor. The Edwards’ served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York City from 2002 to 2003. (BYU Photo)

LaVell and his wife Patti Edwards served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York City from 2002 to 2003. During that time, the Edwards became involved in the Harlem community. LaVell even aided Harlem locals in reviving football in the area.

After a lack of high school football in Harlem which lasted over 62 years, former NFL player Duke Fergerson organized the Harlem Hellfighters in 2003. One of his players was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Edwards home taught this young man, who then connected Fergerson with Edwards. Edwards counseled coaches, shared BYU game tape and connected them with the NFL in order to get donations.

With the Edwards’ Harlem connections in mind, Sitake’s More2Life Foundation began finding service opportunities in the New York area in fall 2016.

The beginning of More2Life

The More2Life Foundation leadership selects 30-35 BYU football players each year for the service trip. The cost limits the number of players who can take the trip to New York.

“The only problem is that we wish we could take more,” Sitake said. “The whole team wants to do it, so the hard part is selecting only the 35 guys that get to go.”

Although there isn’t a specific criteria that qualifies the chosen players, the foundation’s Harlem partners prefer players who look like their kids so they can relate easier. The foundation also considers players who work well with kids, have varying backgrounds, are natural leaders and may have never had the opportunity to travel to New York before.

In the foundation’s first two years, leaders reached out to over 20 schools and only three or four expressed interest in a visit. In those first two trips, players visited a couple of schools in the Brooklyn and Harlem areas. 

However, not every school was in dire need of outside aid. As a result, the foundation began researching what schools would best fit their mission and would benefit the most from their support.

More2Life visited The Sojourner Truth School in the summer of 2018. After learning more about the school’s situation and needs, More2Life began focusing its efforts towards this school.

In the foundation’s first year, it also made a service trip to the Compton, Calif area over Memorial Day weekend. Busby said it was a good experience, but pointed out that their foundation’s model could not support two travel trips financially.

“It makes more sense to take one trip and work with multiple partners there than to try and travel all over the country,” Busby said. “It’s just too expensive.”

Besides Sojourner Truth, More2Life also partnered with the Harlem Jets, a Harlem-based, non-profit youth sports organization. The organizations’ relationship began in the summer of 2017 during the foundation’s first trip to New York.

Partners’ main goal

Harlem Jets and Sojourner Truth leaders hope their kids use knowledge obtained while working with the More2Life Foundation to achieve higher education, particularly acceptance into private schools.

Harlem Jets’ founder and president Jamel Wright poses on a practice field in Harlem, New York, during their event with More2Life. Wright grew up in the apartment buildings seen in the background. (Jenae Hyde)

Jamel Wright, Harlem-native and founder of the Harlem Jets, said he hopes football aids his athletes in getting accepted into more prestigious schools, calling it the organization’s “ultimate goal.”

Claudia Aguirre, Columbia University alumna and Sojourner Truth’s head principal of four years, said the school aims to get their students into private schools to set them up for future success. 

“We want our kids to have the opportunity to take advantage of what is out there and be selected and put in the front so they have the opportunities to achieve their life goals,” Aguirre said.

Agurrie isn’t looking for the kids to leave the area forever, though. She said students leaving Harlem temporarily for their education can help build up the community.

“We do want them to grow up and become leaders and come back to the community,” Aguirre said. “That’s our first goal because we want to continue to strengthen the community. But, sometimes that means leaving.”

Aguirre mentioned one of her recently graduated eighth graders Tidiane Gakou as the perfect example of what they hope for in their students. Tidiane received a full scholarship to a private boarding school in North Carolina for lacrosse where he will start high school next year.

Tidiane said he first approached his coach about his desire to go to boarding school. He said his coach told him that he needed to first put in the work.

“He started helping me get tutoring, getting my grades up and stuff like that,” Tidiane said. “This year he helped me apply to boarding school and then it happened.”

Tidiane also attributed Aguirre and Mia Gaytan, a Sojourner Truth guidance counselor, for helping him through the process. In particular, he said Gaytan helped him maintain his grades and Aguirre helped him with his scholarship and getting his new school uniform.

“I’m excited,” Tidiane said about leaving Harlem and going off to school. “Like, I know I have big things planned up for my future. Playing lacrosse has always been my dream since third grade. Yeah, I’m very, very excited.” 

Looking forward

Trey Dye, former BYU wide receiver and More2Life leader who has been involved since the first trip in 2017, said the experience gets better every year. 

“It’s just amazing to see how much it means to these kids and how when you come back they recognize you, and before that we didn’t really have a footprint in New York,” Dye said. “Coast to coast, it shows the value of being kind and serving people.” 

Dye said this experience is not just valuable for the kids, but for all the players involved as well. 

“It’s easy in this world to think about ourselves or think about the things we don’t have, but these kids, they’re really just so grateful,” Dye said. “And honestly, I think we get more out of it than them.”

Dye said the foundation involves more than just the athletes in the mentoring experience. He said the trip allows the kids to be around the foundation’s successful donors as well.

“Some of our donors are successful businessmen, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies,” Dye said. “And so, it’s good for the kids to be able to interact with them as well as the athletes on the team. We’re just trying to close that gap between those stages in life.”

More2Life executive director Duane Busby talks with BYU head coach and More2Life co-founder Kalani Sitake while visiting the Sojourner Truth School. (Jenae Hyde)

Busby explained that the foundation is separate from BYU because of its high cost. He said BYU already does a lot of humanitarian work and the cost would probably not be sustainable with their budget. 

He said most More2Life donors have no association with BYU and live outside of Utah. Further, most of the donors don’t donate because of the organization’s relation to athletics.

“They do it because of the mission,” Busby said. “It’s not like if we weren’t doing it, they would donate to BYU athletics. That’s not the case at all. They would find other causes that align in this space to do it with.”

Busby said Sitake also wanted More2Life structured separately from BYU so other colleges, athletic programs or sports teams could adopt it.

“(I) just love the fact that this isn’t just a BYU thing,” Sitake said. “Service isn’t only limited to church-goers and Christians and BYU fans, but we can definitely set the standard and get it started. It’s something that we should share with others.”

Sitake said other schools and coaches have reached out to him, and he has shared the More2Life plan with them in response. He also said Busby has been open to helping them start their own foundations.

Sitake said they can only do so much as a single football team but he hopes other athletic departments and teams will join.

“Hopefully all of the other programs want to do this as well, and all of the teams want to participate,” Sitake said. “If they do, then they can call myself or Duane, and we’ll get them set up.”

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