After launching in 1998 in Mexico, Copa Coca-Cola has expanded to reach young soccer players around the world. The long-running physical activity program gives teams of boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 15 the opportunity to compete in tournaments at the local, state and national levels. National competitions culminate in a World Cup-style international championship each summer.

Copa Coca-Cola has impacted 125,000 teens in more than 10 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa. In the east African nation of Burundi, a 20-year-old university student will always remember the day the renowned program changed his life. Here’s his story:

My name is Emery Nduwimana. My mother died when I was four years old, and I went to live with my father. Dad mistreated me, so I moved again and went to stay with my uncle, who took me to school. After awhile and facing much difficulty, I ran away from the village to the city and became a street child for two months. It was rough on the streets.

I was often hungry and walked around in search of food. Then one day, I saw a man standing outside a children’s orphanage. At first, I didn’t know what happened on the other side of the gate. All I saw when I peeped in was the number of children playing in the compound. I asked the man what this place was, and he told me it was a children’s home. He asked me if I was an orphan, and I said yes. Then he told me that if I wanted to join the children, I had to pay him some money. All I had in my tattered pockets was 300 Burundi Francs ($.20), which the man accepted. He took me to the orphanage and introduced me to one of the caretakers, who asked me some questions. I remember lying about the province I came from – I didn’t want them to take me back home. The caretaker told me that the children at the home were unruly, but I was well behaved. That is why they accepted me. 

I stayed at the home for one year. While I was there, my mother’s brother heard that I had left my paternal family. He started looking for me. After searching for many days, and in what seemed to be a stroke of divine providence, my uncle parked his cab outside the children’s home where I stayed. He asked anyone he met whether they knew me. One of the people he spoke to was a child from the home who later introduced me to my uncle. I had no idea who he was.

But blood is thicker than water. My uncle recognized me, and as we started talking, my memory began to piece him together. He asked the home to release me so I could move in with him. The caretaker asked me what I thought. I said I wanted to go and live in a family. The children’s home was saddened because I was the only one, out of 60 children, who went to school. The rest were delinquents.

At the age of eight, I left the home. For the last 12 years, I have lived with my uncle, aunt and two cousins. My uncle has provided everything I need – food, shelter, clothing, education and the genuine love of family.

Despite the upheavals in my life, the only constant has been my love for football. My uncle saw my interest in the game, but he didn’t want me to play although I was part of the school team. He insisted I focus on my education so I could have a better future.

In 2010, the year the FIFA World Cup™ came to Africa, my uncle heard that Copa Coca-Cola was in town and that they would host an international camp in South Africa just before the world soccer games. I wanted to be part of it. The idea of being a Copa Coca-Cola football star was exciting to me. I prayed hard to be selected. My uncle helped me to pray, too. When Coca-Cola came recruiting, I was there, and they picked me.

I guess they’re right when they say nothing can stop an idea whose time has come. My uncle relented and started taking me to practice. My school team played all the way to the finals, and he was there at the closing match when I was announced as the top scorer of the tournament. I didn’t see it, but my friend said he saw my uncle cry. He was so happy that his prayers had been answered. 

I also was selected to watch a FIFA World Cup match in South Africa. Can you imagine that? One day I was scavenging the streets of Bujumbura for food, and the next, I was airborne enjoying a warm meal 30,000 feet above sea level! It was electrifying to watch the match between Ghana and Serbia. I felt like the people in “TV land” could see me and I could see them!

I now study at the University of Burundi, and I want to play professional football to help my family. In Burundi, soccer is not a means of livelihood. One has to have a job as well. My favorite international team is Barcelona, and I’m inspired by Lionel Messi and coach Tito Vilanova. Locally, my favorite club is Vitalo, and I enjoy watching coach Saido Ntibazonkiza and player Gilbert Kanyenkore in action.

Copa Coca-Cola wiped away my tears. It’s amazing how this football tournament has boosted my self-esteem and given me a reason to believe. When I lost my mum, life as I knew it was over. But now, I have a second chance. I can see a bright a future ahead, and I know I will make it. I’m playing the game I love and living with my uncle and his family. He is my number-one fan.

I haven’t seen dad since I left home, but I would like to see him again and share the love he didn’t give me. If only he could see me now.

Stella Kiguta-Ng’ang’a is the public affairs and communications manager for Coca-Cola Central, East and West Africa. With head offices in Nairobi, Kenya, Coca-Cola and its bottling partners serve 650 million consumers in East Africa, Nigeria, West Africa, the Horn region and Islands. Follow Stella on Twitter @stellanganga.