BALTIMORE (BVM) — On and off the soccer field, Ali Andrzejewski is an indefatigable worker. Starting soccer at the youngest of ages, she always knew that the sport was her passion.
“I wouldn’t consider my commitment to soccer as forgoing other interests because it’s really all I wanted to do,” Andrzejewski said.
Andrzejewski has always loved being part of a team and being united for a cause. As her causes have grown, Andrzejewski’s love of the game, her commitment to hard work and her faith have remained steadily at the core of her efforts.
At McDonogh School in Baltimore County, Andrzejewski was named Maryland’s state player of the year twice playing for the Eagles. She went on to see great success as a college midfielder for the Maryland Terrapins before transferring to the Loyola Greyhounds. Her two seasons in Baltimore resulted in two MAAC Offensive Player of the Year honors (2004, 2005).
While many athletes fade out of their sport post-college, Andrzejewski continues to find new and creative ways to do what she loves and share that love with others.
“I think the game of soccer has given me an incredible opportunity to be a mentor and role model for youth players,” Andrzejewski said. “I view soccer so much differently than I used to. I was always so focused on what the game could do for me and my team, but now I see how much more powerful and beautiful the game is. It is a vehicle for community, mentoring, personal development, fun and change. When I put my cleats on and walk out to play, I still feel like I did when I was 5 years old playing for my dad on the yellow team we called the Bumble Bees. I love this game.”
As a young woman, she found a love of exploring and traveling. After a mission trip, Andrzejewski knew that she was being called to serve in some capacity back in Central America. The specifics of this call, however, were unclear.
“It did not occur to me to do anything with soccer; I thought maybe I would teach English,” Andrzejewski said.
After some time had passed and the idea of going back to Central America had marinated, she thought, “‘Hey, they like soccer! I can do a soccer program.’ So, I called them and set it up; then it just took off from there.”
When she arrived in Nicaragua, Andrzejewski began More Than Fútbol. Many of the local pastors were women, as was the bishop, where she began her work.
“I think they respected me as a person and then once I played soccer with them on the field, they had respect for me as an athlete,” Andrzejewski said.
Her program was viewed so positively that in 2010, she was approached about beginning something similar in Belize. From this, another branch of More Than Fútbol was born.
Unlike Nicaragua, Andrzejewski was up against some resistance as she began in Belize. With volunteers ready to begin, the male coach told her he didn’t need any help and she could have 30 minutes of field time with the girls. In a bold move and despite his 30-minute offer, she decided the girls would practice the same hours as the boys.
“We worked with the girls that day until 5 p.m. and taught them all kinds of new skills,” Andrzejewski said. “The next day that coach came up to me and said, ‘Do you think you can teach some of that stuff to the boys today?’ Victory! Since then, our relationship with the school has grown immensely.”
Andrzejewski and her volunteers help in the classrooms during the day and run a program after school every day.
“I go for a month but often have long-term volunteers that stay for three to four additional months to work with the kids,” Andrzejewski said. “The teachers and the kids are like family. I do everything I can not to bring those kids back home with me.”
As with much of life, Andrzejewski and her team have found that consistency is key. They are not there for their own benefit or to check any humanitarian boxes. They are there to build relationships.
“If you want to do well,” Andrzejewski said, “you have to be consistent.”
Andrzejewski said she never worried about whether or not she was biting off more than she could chew.
“It wasn’t really a question of whether or not I would be able to do it,” Andrzejewski said. “I just did it. If you want to make something happen, you will. I knew that is where God wanted me to be and I never worried about whether or not it would work out; I had total faith.”
The program, like much of life, currently looks different. Andrzejewski was able to be in Belize for the month of January, as usual, but More Than Fútbol’s long term volunteers had to return back to the U.S. early due to the COVID-19 pandemic; they have also missed the last two years in Nicaragua due to civil unrest.
“While technology is no replacement, it does make a difference that we can be in touch with our family in both places,” Andrzejewski said. “I remember when we first went to Nicaragua, cell phones were not so smart and we were just hoping that they were coming to pick us up at the airport. Of course, they were there, but had something gone wrong with our flight, it would have been difficult to communicate with them quickly.”
When Andrzejewski is not busy playing, coaching or helping run or advise non-profits/community organizations, she wears many other hats — wife, daughter, sister, aunt and friend. Her work ethic and creativity continue to drive her.
“I love problem solving and figuring out new and creative ways to create a better environment for youth players today,” Andrzejewski said.
In order to continue to understand sports and those she works with, she is finishing her doctorate in sports psychology.
Andrzejewski’s work on the field and off has not gone unnoticed. In 2016, she was inducted into the Maryland Soccer Hall of Fame. More recently, she was inducted into the Maryland State Athletic Hall of Fame last November.
“How can anyone receive that news? I was shocked,” Andrzejewski said. “Babe Ruth is in this hall of fame and the inductees that went in my induction class last year were all incredible athletes.”
Her impact locally continues to inspire. She is on the advisory board for Soccer Without Borders in Baltimore, an organization that works to help refugees in Baltimore and around the country. She is a huge proponent of young people finding what they love and chasing their dreams. She notes that the pursuit of what she loved was not always easy.
“I remember when I was 12 or 13 and I did not make the Maryland state soccer team,” Andrzejewski said. “Only two years after I was cut from the Maryland state team, I was playing for the U16 U.S. National team. Be OK with slow progress and small steps because they will add up.”