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Three days passed without a sign of him. Luma started a fund-raising drive for his family and raised nearly $5,000. On the fourth day, she glanced over as the Fugees ran laps and saw Christian, shaggy and forlorn, hanging onto the fence. "I really want to play," he said.
"It's the same rules, no exceptions." She'd had to expel him from the team just before the fire for uttering obscenities.
She dug a spare pair of cleats out of her car and reinstated him. He was a model Fugee for the rest of that season, except during laps, when he'd slow to a walk after just a few, wincing in pain. "My heart hurts," he'd tell Luma, and she'd walk the rest of the laps with him, knowing it was the truest excuse that a Fugee had ever given her.
But then the season ended, summer came, and Luma—who spent half her waking hours trying to raise funds to keep her team afloat—couldn't afford to place the boys in summer camps or programs to keep them off the streets. Christian slipped through the cracks and never returned.
Luma tore at herself. Maybe if she'd worded something a little better on her website, fugeesfamily.org, or had made just one more appeal to one more group, she could've raised the money that would've kept him on the right path.
Sure, helping hands had emerged—wonderful volunteers such as Kevin and Susan Gordon who provided rides and supervision to the kids, and opposing teams that donated balls, cleats and jerseys—and she was grateful. But each day brought a new family crisis, and it was becoming too much for one woman to coach, tutor, mother, raise funds and remember that many birthdays.
Tracy saved her. Tracy Ediger, a woman who volunteered for Jubilee Partners, a Christian organization in Georgia that helped refugees get on their feet. "I can't do this on my own," Luma confided to her in 2006. Tracy joined the battle, and now the passionate visionary had the cool, rational, detail-doting partner that she needed.
Then Luma hit the lottery. A New York Times writer named Warren St. John, searching for a meaty refugee story, sent out a query to a relief-agency worker in the Atlanta area. Luma and the Fugees, he was told, were prime rib. The story appeared on the front page. A woman visited the Fugees after reading the article and asked what they needed. "A bus!" blurted a Fugee, and damned if the woman didn't write a $50,000 check to buy one. The Atlanta Falcons chipped in money, Nike sent cash, uniforms and gear. "Look, Coach!" crowed Qendrim. "We went from Kroger bags to Nike bags!"
But no matter how much came in, it wasn't enough to keep up with Luma's dreams. In this, her fourth year, she expanded to five teams, including a girls' under-14 squad—nearly 100 players in all. She hired a full-time teacher, rented a classroom from a private school and initiated a full-day Fugees Academy so that six struggling boys could catch up on their reading, writing and math. She watched their reading levels leap by two, three, four grades in just months and laid plans to expand the academy by one teacher and one class of six boys each year.
She turned reading books into a horse race, each book moving a Fugee one block forward on a chart, and grinned to see boys who'd been virtually illiterate a year or two earlier talking smack over who'd finish first and, as a prize, go with Coach on a mysterious summer road trip. She turned them into coaches, had them teach soccer to little kids in a weekly clinic at an elementary school, and into referees so they could officiate youth games. She had Tracy and three full-time Vista volunteers sizzling the phones to place the players in summer literacy and science camps. But her fondest pipe dream remained Fugeeville, a place in the woods with a big field, a building for classrooms, a computer lab and cabins that 60 or 70 refugee families could move into, to heal their wounds and start anew.