Born to Ghanaian immigrants in Manassas, Virginia, CJ Sapong is a professional soccer player for the Philadelphia Union. A 2011 MLS Rookie of the Year, Sapong is heading into his ninth season in the league.
Here are CJ’s answers to The Sport of Philanthropy’s top 10 questions about his philanthropic work:
What is your motivation for giving back?
My motivation comes from my own personal journey. With my soccer career in jeopardy due to injuries a few years ago, I couldn’t understand why my condition wasn’t improving. After suffering from nerve issues, I decided to start doing my own health research and discovered that I could heal my body through food.
However, my journey back to health made me realize that people in low-income areas often aren’t privvy to the same nutritional knowledge and resources. I began to recognize the apparent need in these communities for nutrition awareness and access to healthy foods that allow them to maximize their potential.
Can you share more about the story behind Sacred Seeds?
As I educated myself on nutrition, I began to face a grim reality. I would have to drastically alter what I was doing if I wanted to heal my body. As a professional athlete training constantly and thinking I was eating healthy, I was shocked at everything I was learning.
My research ultimately culminated in a kitchen experiment. Realizing I could heal myself by cultivating my own food, I started growing microgreens on my kitchen counter. After a successful trial, I began incorporating them into my diet. Not only did I feel happier and more energetic, I also felt empowered seeing my own food grow. I decided to start Sacred Seeds as a way to help others experience the same transformation.
What made you want to start your own organization versus participating in occasional community events?
I have always wanted to give back. Both my parents are from Ghana, and I have been fortunate enough to visit. There was one trip where I brought soccer balls and gave them away to local kids. It felt good giving the balls away, but I left the trip questioning whether what we gave them would have a lasting effect. That experience led me to want to create sustainable change — change that could be measured from generation to generation.
What has been most challenging for you with Sacred Seeds?
When I first started Sacred Seeds, I defined my success through my athlete lens. I judged myself based on my performance and the speed of my achievements. I wanted to get everything up and running as quickly as possible, and I got down on myself if it didn’t all go according to schedule.
As I started getting into the community and attending local events with like-minded organizations and individuals though, I began to enjoy the process of developing a grassroots movement and seeing the application of knowledge spark something in people.
From watching kids eat wheatgrass out of the tray — and like it — to seeing them plant sunflower seeds, it has become a really fruitful experience for me. I’ve seen how Sacred Seeds has benefited our volunteers too. Two of our volunteers now have hydroponic systems in their houses, and another sleeps in his own greenhouse.
Is there any particular success story you can share about Sacred Seeds?
This spring, Sacred Seeds will hit a major milestone. We will be launching a pilot garden in the Philadelphia Union stadium in Chester in partnership with a local charter school. We will also offer a curriculum to complement the hands-on garden experience. The timing is perfect with the start of the MLS season. It will be amazing for me to walk just a few feet from the field to work with kids in the garden.
What accomplishment off the field makes you most proud?
I’m proud that I have been able to use my platform to create something like Sacred Seeds. Not only has the experience tested me and helped me become a better person, but it is also helping to better the lives of the people around me and those in underserved communities.
What are your long-term philanthropic goals?
My long-term goal for Sacred Seeds is to expand our presence in underserved communities so we can empower more people through nutrition education and sustainability. I also dream of taking agricultural technology to villages in Ghana and other places globally to help communities implement a system of self-sufficiency. I don’t think there’s ever an end to growth. I’m just trying to continue planting seeds wherever I can.
What recommendations would you share with others to improve their nutrition?
First, I would say dig deep within yourself and do the necessary research to understand how your particular body works and what you need to put in it to maximize your potential.
Second, there’s nothing more powerful than a collective movement. We need to come together as communities to support each other with resources and share insights and expertise related to nutrition. We can do great things as individuals, but the impact is exponentially greater when we do them in collaboration with others.
Who else in the sports world do you see as inspirational in their philanthropic work?
Here in Philly, I admire a lot of the Eagles players. One example is Carson Wentz who recently launched his Thy Kingdom Crumb food truck, which goes around the region feeding people. It’s not something Carson has to do, but it makes a huge impression when people see beloved sports figures giving back like that. He’s not just giving people food, he’s also holding people to a higher standard to share their blessings with those in need.
What advice would you give other athletes and influential sports figures seeking to use their platforms to create positive social impact and better the world?
As much as we focus on ourselves and mastering our respective crafts as professional athletes, we are also in a position of serving others by the sheer nature of what we do. What better way to find your purpose beyond your sport than to be of even greater service to your fans and the community of people around you?