From Ghana to Glory: Leslie Okai’s Journey of Fortitude

By Zehra Naqvi, Social Media and Website Coordinator 

Amongst the recently graduated class of 2024 at Montverde Academy is a young man who stands out for his humility, resolve, bravery, and aspirations. In a heartwarming tale of determination and community support, Leslie Okai has signed on a promising future with Valencia CF, marking the start of his professional soccer career. Okai’s story is shaped by his upbringing in a small Ghanian village and transformative years at MVA. His journey began with modest means and big dreams. And while resources were scarce, his passion was abundant.

Okai arrived to MVA three years ago, leaving behind his hometown of Labadi Apaapa in Ghana. Reflecting on his journey, Okai shares, “Receiving the news that I was going to the States to pursue my dreams was a big thing for me.” Moving to the United States was not just a geographical shift but a cultural and emotional leap. “I was living in Ghana, West Africa. It would be my first time in America,” he says. “I was elated. And my entire community was so happy for me, too!”

Growing up in a traditional family, Okai’s early life was marked by restrictions that kept him close to home. His love for soccer blossomed behind a fence where he watched his older brothers play. “One day, I found the courage to go over the fence and experience how it felt to be on the field,” Okai recounts. This act of defiance was the beginning of his soccer journey, despite initial resistance from his family. It was his grandmother’s support that became crucial, allowing him to balance academics and soccer. “She said, ‘You have to take your school seriously,’ and I did.”

The first time Okai was to showcase at an academy, he did not have the means to buy proper cleats. His parents, he says, “tried their best with what they had available, but they were not able to afford a good pair of cleats at that time.” He remembers casually talking to his friends about the cleats, not expecting the supportive Labadi community to rally together and buy him his first pair – the collective spirit that fueled Okai’s aspirations. “The entire community gathered money to get me the shoes, and that helped me join an academy that provided more opportunities,” he recollects with gratitude. “I can never forget that. It was more than footwear to me; it was a symbol of their belief in my potential.”

At Montverde Academy, Okai found a new family in his teammates, teachers, and coaches. He fondly remembers his first ESL class at MVA, in which he was encouraged to express himself and hold on to his roots, especially when he was so far away from home. “Leslie Okai embodies the power of authenticity,” says Mr. Simon Kassabi, Upper School ESL teacher. In my creative writing class, I always emphasize the importance of being true to oneself. Leslie embraced this ethos wholeheartedly, paving his path with sincerity, passion, and originality.”

Okai appreciates the school’s holistic approach, which fostered both his academic and athletic growth. “Montverde Academy provided me with a solid academic foundation and SIMA (Soccer Institute at Montverde Academy), in particular, helped me improve and develop my athletic skills,” Okai acknowledges. Throughout his high school career, Okai’s performances were nothing short of exceptional. He led the SIMA Gold varsity team to several victories, demonstrating athletic prowess and leadership. In his senior year, he earned the Student-Athlete of the Year Award. He highlights the values he learned, such as collaboration and teamwork, as pivotal in his growth. “I may not be rich, but I would say I’m rich with experiences and the knowledge and memories that I have gathered at Montverde Academy and during my entire life. For that, I am grateful.”

Looking ahead, Okai is focused not only on his career but also on giving back. “I’m passionate about youth empowerment and providing access to sports and academics for underprivileged children,” he says. He dreams of building an academy in Ghana to nurture future talents, inspired by the support he received when he was a little boy. When possible, Leslie enjoyed volunteering at MVA, coaching the younger students or helping around campus. “Leslie embodies the values we have at Montverde Academy that talk about the person, the student, and the athlete. He is exceptional at all those values equally,” says Mr. David Graydon (’11), SIMA coach and fellow MVA alum.

As Leslie Okai prepares to take the next step in his journey, he carries with him the support of Ghana and the spirit of MVA. His story shows what can be achieved when talent meets tenacity and when communities come together to nurture their own. “It’s not how fast you get there – it’s how far you go,” he notes. “Believe in yourself. Don’t be afraid to fail. Take the chance. Work hard and be a good person. What is meant for you will find its way.”