Published May 1, 2023, 1:00pm
By Kelly Smith Star Tribune
Tony Sanneh's foundation helps low-income kids through free sports camps, educational programs and food distributions. But some of his own employees struggle too.
After learning that six employees were grappling with homelessness, the Sanneh Foundation started buying up houses to rent at affordable rates to entry-level employees. On Friday, the foundation closed on the purchase of its sixth house on St. Paul's East Side.
"We look at it like a 401(k) — a benefit people may need," Sanneh said.
"They're invested not just in the work I'm doing, but me as a person," said DeAnthoney "Kojak" Acon, 23, an AmeriCorps VISTA member who works on social media and marketing for the St. Paul-based nonprofit. "This is a pretty big moment for us."
Acon has faced homelessness and housing insecurity for most of his life, he said, but on Saturday he moved into one of the Sanneh Foundation's houses — his first stable home as an adult.
"I'm building up my life, I'm rebuilding up my foundation," he said. "It means a lot to me because it's literally life-changing."
It's the first foray into housing programs for the foundation led by Sanneh, a retired Major League Soccer star. And now he wants to provide affordable housing not just for his employees but other nonprofit workers as well.
The foundation is proposing a $35 million Innovation Center off University Avenue in St. Paul with 100 units for nonprofit, education and health care workers. The facility also would offer training programs and house the Sanneh Foundation's offices.
U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith have requested $4 million in federal funding for the project, while bills at the Legislature are seeking $6 million in state funding.
"We're trying to do this to scale," said Sanneh, who was on the 2002 U.S. World Cup team and retired from pro soccer in 2010. "We could help more than just our nonprofit."
When he first heard about some of his own employees having to couch-hop, without a stable place to lay their heads at night, Sanneh offered them spare bedrooms at his Bloomington house. In 2019, the foundation began buying houses with rooms that employees could rent.
The sixth purchase on Friday, a $350,000 recently remodeled house, was accomplished with the help of a $50,000 grant from the St. Paul Area Association of Realtors Charitable Foundation.
The 14 Sanneh Foundation employees who live at the six houses pay modest rent and expenses. All are entry-level workers or AmeriCorps members who receive an educational award and are paid a living allowance amounting to about $17,000 a year.
"It gives workers a lot of stability," said Faydane Ouro-Akondo, 23, who works as the foundation's program coordinator and moved into the new house Friday. "If you don't have to worry about a place to sleep, it frees up time for other things."
The foundation has also hired a social worker who helps employees in a workforce development program.
Sanneh estimates the foundation has spent about $1 million on the six houses and townhouses. But he said it's a worthy investment, especially for an organization that recruits a diverse workforce to reflect the youth they work with in the community. People of color make up 70% of the nonprofit's employees.
"To change something generationally, we have to start at both ends," Sanneh said, referring to both the foundation's employees and the children they serve. "It's only making what we do better."
Kelly Smith covers nonprofits/philanthropy for the Star Tribune and is based in Minneapolis. Since 2010, she’s covered Greater Minnesota on the state/region team, Hennepin County government, west metro suburban government and west metro K-12 education.
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