Story by Kathy McPherson, Content Marketing Writer/Editor
It’s been four years since Durham Academy alumni, faculty, students and friends gathered for a celebration of life in Kenan Auditorium to remember alumnus Chris Rosati ’89. Rosati made a deliberate choice after his ALS diagnosis — to spread happiness any way he could. One effort focused on producing a “butterfly effect” of kindness through small grants for school children who engaged in selfless acts, which dozens of schools adopted. But most people remember Rosati’s first taste of celebrity eight years ago when Krispy Kreme allowed him to commandeer a Starliner bus to hand out 1,000 doughnuts at cancer wards, schools and city parks like a modern day Robin Hood, just to make people smile. Chris Rosati had a way about him.
Rosati’s message to make the world a better place inspired many, and it is a message that is being lived daily in Lewiston, Maine. Kids there wear T-shirts emblazoned with “Rosati Leadership Academy” on the front and “37” — the jersey number Rosati wore when he played soccer at DA — on the back. Rosati Leadership Academy (RLA), an after-school program that teaches life skills through soccer, is the brainchild of DA alumnus Chris White ’92, and the nonprofit program was brought to fruition by a group of DA alumni to honor the memory of Rosati, who died at age 46 after a seven-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Douglas Dicconson ’91, Torsie Judkins ’91 and Charlie Shipman ’92 serve on the board of RLA with White and Anna Rosati, widow of Chris Rosati and mother of their two daughters. Bret Ellis ’92 is involved, as are a handful of alumni who support RLA anonymously.
“What better network [than DA alumni]? You know, we were all together and talking about Chris [Rosati] and speaking to his wife, Anna … and what types of things he wanted to see when he passed on. We talk all the time. I mean, these are my best friends. We talk about life, we can talk about each other and ways that we can help one another. So it's a whole DA network.”
Torsie Judkins ’91
White was a DA ninth-grader playing on the JV soccer team when Rosati was a senior starring on the varsity team. “My understanding of Chris Rosati before I really got to know him was this hero, this great-looking, smart, really nice guy, funny guy. He was Mr. All-American, he had it all,” White said.
After playing soccer at Colgate University, spending time in Eastern Europe, earning two master’s degrees and holding jobs teaching and coaching soccer around the U.S., White returned to Durham and became friends with Rosati through Dicconson, Judkins and Shipman. When Rosati was diagnosed with ALS in 2010, White said “everybody rallied, and I was part of that and I just got closer and closer to him.”
At the time, White was helping coach the Duke women’s soccer team and teaching at Northern High School. A passion for cultural diversity and an ability to empathize with the plight of others had led White to teach “kids who were absolutely poverty-stricken” at New York’s South Bronx High School and had inspired him to launch a soccer program for underserved children in Durham.
“The inspiration to work with kids from tougher backgrounds came from how I grew up and the people I grew up with and the amazing teachers and leaders at Durham Academy,” White said. “I know a lot of those teachers give such good values in an environment that can be a little bit non-reality. … I just think the DA teachers, faculty and leadership continue to do a fantastic job of reminding those kids constantly with all this privilege [that] there are so many people out there in the world who weren't born with all this privilege.”
White remembered that anytime Rosati saw him, he would ask about the fledgling kids’ soccer program White had begun..
“It just smacked me in the face with a two-by-four every time I saw him because he would always ask about our program. … The first thing he would always say was, ‘How's the program going? How can I help?’” White recalled. “This guy is facing such limited time on Earth, and what's he doing? He's giving. So when he passed away — and I'm not a religious person — but I just felt like the hand of God grabbed me by the back of the neck and was like you're going up to Maine. I know I'm good at leadership with kids, I know I'm good with education and I'm good with soccer and I love working with kids from tougher backgrounds. I felt the hand of God just pulled me up to Maine and was like, do your thing. So that was it.”
White made his way to Lewiston, a mill town with a love of soccer, where jobs had vanished in the 1980s and ’90s. Lewiston’s mostly French-Canadian-based populace was already experiencing poverty in 2001 when an influx of Somali immigrants arrived with few financial resources. White described the town as having a population of roughly 30,000, including 6,000 Somalis. The high school soccer team won a state championship in 2015, which helped bring the Lewiston community together, but there was still a pronounced racial and religious divide when White arrived in 2018.
The first six months White was in Lewiston, he worked as the at-risk teacher coordinator/director at the local middle school. “I knew that working with the toughest kids in Lewiston would really give me a foothold in the community to know what the resources are. And I found that Lewiston — and I grew up in Chapel Hill, spent a lot of time around North Carolina, in the South — I've never seen racism like in Lewiston.”
He began to lay the groundwork for what would become the Rosati Leadership Academy.
“I spent the first six months getting a feel for the environment and then we started, but I couldn't have done anything by myself,” White said. “Every single door that had to be opened was opened by somebody who I basically had to convince that our philosophy was worthwhile, our value systems were good, I was a trustworthy person — and that took time. The Somali community didn't open their arms to me for two years. But after two years, they realized I'd never asked a single person for a penny, we've had practice every single day, five days a week for two or three years [other than when it closed due to COVID-19 restrictions].”
Looking back on the first two years of the program — before it received nonprofit tax status in 2020 — White remembers long phone conversations with Douglas Dicconson, bouncing around names for the program, “just name after name after name, brainstorming, brainstorming. Doug does such a good job of focusing energy, wordsmithing and communicating. It just hit us like a brick. Well, Chris Rosati is the reason why this happened. No question. And it's all about leadership. Slowly but surely, this brainstorm just became very clear. It's the Rosati Leadership Academy.”
“There's a path that's being shown to these kids and they're walking it, and the results are just amazing. It really is an incredible thing that Chris [White] is doing all day, every day: Rosati Leadership Academy, the culture that he is creating there, the space, the place-making he's doing in that space, saying when you come through this door, I'm going to respect you endlessly, and you are also going to respect each other and this program endlessly.”
Douglas Dicconson ’91
White knew he wanted to teach life skills through soccer, and credits much of what he knows about soccer, working with people and getting the most out of people to long-time mentor Anson Dorrance, the legendary UNC women’s soccer team head coach — a program that has won 21 NCAA championships under his leadership and is among the winningest programs in NCAA soccer and college sports.
RLA works in partnership with the Lewiston Public Schools, Lewiston Department of Recreation, Bates College and Maine Community Integration, which White said is run by Fowsia Musse, a Somali woman “who has been absolutely incredible with ideas.”
White thinks the RLA logo may be the only soccer logo in America with a hijab, a traditional head scarf worn by Muslim women and girls. The logo features three children playing soccer and “is actually intended to be a little bit confusing in terms of ages because we do all the way from elementary up and college level kids. We also do boys and girls. We don’t care about gender or ethnicity. We welcome everybody.”
In 2021, RLA employed two full-time coaches, worked with 130 students and had about 20 volunteers. It operates almost all year, pausing only in July and August.
The bare-bones program — there are no uniforms, referees, travel costs or field upkeep — operates on a budget of $105,000 a year. It is free to anyone who walks through the door. The facilities — an old armory and a decommissioned school gym — are intentionally located near schools because few families have cars and the primary focus is elementary-age kids.
“We want to focus on that foundational level to create those patterns, those practices, those habits and that culture to see the kids through,” White said. “But what we've got is as our kids age out they want to stay with our program, so then we turn around and employ them as youth coaches. They’re still getting soccer because they're playing soccer, they’re role modeling to the younger kids and we put a little bit of money in their pocket. So it's a win-win-win.”
White described the Rosati Leadership Academy as “a really simple program. The goals are to get rid of the disciplinary issues, increase grades, get better at soccer — that's the easy part — and the fourth part is life trajectory. If college is something for you … we want to push that as much as we can. We want to follow them all the way through that.”
It’s also based around two philosophies: Adults don’t solve problems, and kids need opportunities to solve conflicts.
“If you walk into our practice, you're going to realize very quickly that the coaches aren’t settling any arguments,” White explained. “We create a system where the kids have to manage themselves and manage their own conflicts and communications around conflicts. We have captains, we have all these different layers of leadership that the kids are learning from. … The beauty of our program is that our kids have hundreds of opportunities every single day to manage themselves and to learn how to work with others and to feel good about themselves.
“You know, we call it basically a laboratory of leadership. Are they going to screw up here? Yep, they're going to screw up. They're going to screw up all the time because that's the best way to learn, but it's a safe environment where mistakes are encouraged as long as we learn from them.”
“My background is in finance and accounting. I'm a numbers guy. I thought that not just helping in terms of contributing or donating money, but contributing and donating time and experience, I thought that would be valuable for him. I actually went up to Maine three weeks ago, right before Christmas, and got to go to a practice. … It was amazing and these kids are amazing. It was really cool. It's a lot of fun to see it in person.”
Charlie Shipman ’92