Soccer gave Bruno Kalonji a way to college and a career as a well-respected coach in the Atlanta area.
Now, Kalonji is proactive in helping hundreds of kids fulfill dreams of their own.
In 2014, he founded the Kalonji Soccer Academy in hopes of helping the underprivileged and refugee youth of Gwinnett and DeKalb counties build a future, with soccer at the forefront. The academy has around 400 kids ranging anywhere from age 7 through 19, and puts a special emphasis on creating an avenue to college.
“Soccer gave me a path to college,” Kalonji said. “Soccer kept me really focused in the classroom toward school and professionally.
“My coaches told me that if I worked hard, I could get a scholarship. So I kind of followed that path. My goal is to give back to these kids what I was given.”
Kalonji runs the academy with several members of his family, including both of his parents. The family is close-knit and works together to organize a program that helps kids not only become better soccer players but also helps the youngsters apply for college, scholarships and financial aid. The program also provides transportation for kids, if needed.
After many years as a club soccer coach in the Atlanta area, Kalonji established connections with a variety of college soccer coaches and has been successful so far in helping send his players to the next level.
“Being with the kids is really what I look forward to all of the time,” Kalonji said. “We’ve been able to graduate and send to college over 150 kids already in the past three years. It has been great. The best thing about it is the kids are going to college and they always come back and help the younger kids.”
But his connections have gone beyond other coaches.
Kalonji’s reputation has allowed his academy to gain recognition from sponsors, helping the family take the program to greater heights, including becoming an Atlanta United Soccer Development partner program.
However, the main draw for Kalonji has been his pure passion for helping youth obtain the opportunities through soccer that he did.
“He has developed a great reputation in Atlanta,” said Alan Carson of Envistacom, the academy’s largest corporate sponsor. “He has sent a number of players over to the Atlanta United Academy program and he continues to be known in the Atlanta soccer community for his great ability to develop talent. But the real thing that drew us was just going to practices and watching his interaction and passion for helping the kids.”
Kalonji has attracted a wide variety of youth to his academy, which operates at multiple locations in Lilburn, including Bryson Park, Harmony Grove Soccer Complex and Lilburn Middle School.
Several of his players are from a similar background as Kalonji, who is of African descent and also has family roots in Eastern Europe. The families of several of the refugee players do not have access to, or are not aware of, ways to help the players get to college. Kalonji can use his cultural background to relate to youngsters and give them hope for a bright future.
“A lot of the kids have some really tough backgrounds,” Kalonji said. “These kids, with everything they are going through at home, (being at the academy) gives them the chance to have a dream going forward.”
Kalonji’s academy fields around 20 teams throughout all age groups and has teams travel all over to compete in high-level tournaments around the country. He has sent many kids to college that might not have achieved that feat without him. And in just three years, he has built a large soccer academy that doubles as a great place for guidance for underprivileged youth.
It has grown quickly, but for Kalonji, he hasn’t gotten caught up in the growth because he keeps his head down and focuses on the personal relationships that he has with his kids.
Because no matter where this program goes, Kalonji just wants kids to get the same chances that he got through the sport of soccer.
“I love what I do every day,” Kalonji said. “I’m not sure what all the future holds, but I know that I will continue to work hard to help give these kids opportunities.”
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