On every individual’s journey of philanthropy, different catalysts arise. Some are brought to the practice by chance, others by necessity and circumstance.
For Houston Dynamo defender Zarek Valentin, the catalyst was his mother.
“She was a single mom, raising three boys,” said Valentin. “My parents divorced when I was two or three, she remarried when I was ten. She still found time to give back to those who are less fortunate. She raised us to always understand how fortunate we are, and always to be cognizant of the fact that others aren't as fortunate as us. We must aid others when the time comes, whatever we can… it’s the least we can do.”
Before his trade to the Dynamo in November 2019, Valentin was already regarded as one of the more philanthropic individuals in Major League Soccer. From various community initiatives with the Timbers to his Ribbon Z campaign, Valentin always used the beautiful game for a greater good.
In a new city, however, there were different challenges – all with the same result.
“I didn’t know if I would have as much influence when I came to Houston,” said Valentin. “We got in last January, but we decided to start raising money for the Houston Food Bank. We saw the lines during COVID – people waiting four hours for a Thanksgiving meal. That just made me so sad, and made me reflect on how fortunate I am. It started off with only my wife and our family throwing in a few bucks, but at the end of it we got over $18,000 raised. I realized then that my platform, whatever it may be, must be used for good.”
Valentin has been on the front lines ever since his arrival in H-Town, especially during the hardship the city experienced in the freeze of 2021. But across his body of work that spans years and multiple issues, there’s one project that hits closest to home for the defender.
“I'll never forget, I was in the gym and I got a call that one of my buddies who's battled with addiction and recently got out of rehab died,” reflects Valentin. “After the call I just ended up crying in the side office. Gio, our GM, and some staff left training to check on me and offer whatever help they could give me. He was one of my best friends… there’s pictures of us growing up at five years old. He had struggled with addiction ever since high school, he had demons and some things he wrestled with all his life. It was a moment that, my god, really opened my eyes to how many people that struggle with addiction issues.”
That loss spurred Valentin and other friends from his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania into action. A multitude of ideas were kicked around – from a golf event to an ice cream social, honoring one of Michael’s favorite treats. That’s where “A Scoop of Hope”, Valentin’s latest project, was born.
The idea gained traction and, with it, donations from Lancaster and across the soccer community. But, as Valentin passionately details whenever you talk to him, he is adamant on making sure that people’s donations can be turned into tangible, viewable change.
Then, the idea struck.
“What if, when they show up in the recovery home, there’s a backpack waiting for them,” said Valentin. “It has clothing and a few different things that can help with the transition. It’s not going to pay for their rent, but it's to know that they're not alone. I talked to Mike's dad, and he said it's very difficult as a parent because they're told that they're there for support - but you can't give them money. You must work to be creative and find different things that will help with that transition. I thought that would be amazing if we made those backpacks, because if they cost X amount of dollars, I literally can build something to show you where your donation is going. That’s where the concept started.”
To fundraise for the backpacks, Valentin decided on raffling off signed jerseys. Beyond just the Dynamo, Valentin received jersey donations from players from the Dash, Toronto FC, U.S. Soccer, Los Angeles Galaxy, and more.
“We’ve had so many people from so many corners of this space willing to join together to work to make the world a better place,” beamed Valentin. “It’s a cliché, but the soccer community is very, very inclusive. That shows when we have raffles and we’re getting winners from ten different states. Literally twenty percent of the country. From Connecticut and Texas to Pennsylvania, Oregon, Washington… that's super special, and honestly encouraging. It’s a sign that we could use our platform and unite to create a better soccer community and create a better place.”
In total, the efforts raised $30,000 to build support backpacks for recovering addicts.
“I'm amazed that the community around the team and I – and American soccer - banded together so quickly to make a difference,” said Valentin. “It’s more than just funds, it’s helping a hand to those of us in our community that are going through some tough moments. It really showed me how much people look out for each other here. I'm really honored to be a part of it and to have the platform in which people entrusted me to make the decisions. I don’t take that lightly.”
Ultimately, however, Valentin is quick to remind that while he is the individual with the platform, his efforts are far from only his doing.
“There’s a huge team behind everything I do,” said Valentin. “Kayla [Knapp] was a massive part of Ribbon Z in Portland, my friend Albert was a driving force behind so much of our work in Lancaster, Valerie [Holland] was crucial in everything I’ve done so far in Houston. While I’m the guy giving the interview, I don't want anyone to ever think that it's just me doing the work or creating the ideas. I have a platform, but it takes an army of people to not only create some of the projects I work on, but to execute them. That’s especially true at the Dynamo, and that ethos and those community projects are a big reason of why I re-signed here.”