Late in 2003, Gail Rongen’s daughter Nicole Megaloudis’s name appeared on the list of potential women who would represent Greece in the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens. Her dreams went unrealized when she died in a car accident as she returned to the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) campus late one night for an early practice session with her college team. Life is rarely fair.
Complying with traditional Eastern Orthodox mourning practice, Gail grieved in the privacy of her own home for 40 days. On the 42nd day after the tragedy, she and her husband Thomas Rongen distributed her ashes into the wind, which wafted them softly into the blue Caribbean Sea.
Early in elementary school, Nicole befriended a young Haitian girl. Their friendship endured through high school, and Nicole frequently told her mother that she longed to visit Haiti. Four months after Nicole’s death, Gail established The Nicole Megaloudis Foundation in memory of her daughter with the intent to do something in Haiti, which would allow Nicole to fulfill her dream to be a part of the island nation.
The burden of grief wore heavily upon the mother’s weary heart as Gail struggled to escape the depression that continued to wear her down. Close friends Bruce and Phyllis Arena became concerned with their friend and urged Gail to ‘do something to get out of the house.’ She took their advice and traveled to Haiti on a Christian mission with Karen Pope, sister of Eddie Pope, former World Cup star and teammate of Tony Sanneh on the United States’ successful 2002 U.S. National Team. Gail and Karen returned to Haiti two years later when she met the Haitian Initiative’s current Technical Director Deni Sanon who at that time managed sponsorships for the LaCroix Haiti Mission.
Four years later, Gail attended a Los Angeles Galaxy soccer match at the invitation of her old friends Bruce and Phyllis. Two years earlier, Bruce took the helm of the Galaxy from former Dutch great Ruud Gullit. Tony explained to Gail that he and other Galaxy personnel would be traveling to Haiti to support earthquake relief efforts. Former Galaxy player Tony Sanneh was leading the way. Nicole and her love for Haiti drew her mother and Tony together.
They chatted frequently during the following years about Tony’s efforts to help Haiti’s recovery through soccer and Gail’s desire to make an impactful contribution to Haiti’s youth on behalf of Nicole. Their common vision began to take a more concrete form when Gail and her husband Thomas Rongen – at that time managing the Tampa Bay Rowdies after two decades of professional coaching experience at the highest level – met Tony in Haiti where Thomas worked on the Haitian Initiative fields coaching young Haitian players for a week.
The following year, Gail sponsored a Haitian girls team in the 2015 USA Cup in Minnesota, an international tournament that draws over 1,000 teams from around the globe. That experience ‘sealed the deal.’ “I knew then with certainty,” Gail explains, “that moving forward, I would work with Tony Sanneh and the Haitian Initiative to fulfill Nicole’s dream.”
In January 2016 as she returned from her weekly trip to the grocery store, Gail received a call from Tod Herskovitz, the Grant and Communications Manager of the Sanneh Foundation.
“We’ve found a place for a guesthouse to support HI,” he explained.
Gail responded with two words, “I’m in.”
During the 12 years since Nicole’s untimely death, Gail has been able to raise a sizeable amount of funding through wise investments and an annual golf tournament in the Washington, D.C. area. She has also awarded 52 need-based scholarships during those painful years.
Yet the circle is closed. This week is the first week the Haitian Initiative has operated from its own guesthouse named Nicole’s Place.
Yesterday – 12 years and 42 days to the date of Nicole’s death – Gail Rongen returned to Haiti to make her initial walk through the guesthouse she has generously sponsored in memory of her daughter. “I’m happy,” she says in her bittersweet way. “I was overwhelmed with emotional exhaustion when I walked up the stairs to the front door. I breathed a breath of relief because I – and Nicole – had finally arrived.”
Gail attended an important meeting with Tony and representatives of the NYPD and the Haitian Police Department as they discussed ways they can work together to promote programs that will ensure security for the children of Cite Soleil and other violent areas of the world.
“This man is the consummate ambassador,” she whispered to me as Tony confidently discussed potential solutions to end violence in this most violent of worlds that surround his soccer complex in Cite Soleil.
Later in the day as she observed training, she leaned back against a cool, concrete wall and sighed another hymn of relief, “I am very happy. Very happy.” She watched with the pride of a young mother as the young girls team that will travel to the United States this summer received their uniforms.
As the warm sun began to slip behind the mountains beyond Cite Soleil, Tony met with his staff and coaches at the facility. As he concluded the meeting, he called Gail forward and thanked her on the part of the hundreds of Haitian men, women and children whose lives she has blessed with the compassion that flows freely and unconditionally from the love for her daughter.
Gail’s son summed it up better than anyone could on a ‘tweet’ earlier in the day. He wrote, “Gail Rongen is my mother. I’m proud of all she is doing in Haiti with Tony Sanneh and the Sanneh Foundation in honor of my sister.”