Bella Reiss, now a senior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, joined SWB this summer as a Program Intern in Boston, MA. After wrapping up her time as our summer intern, Bella shared reflections about her work and experiences collaborating both on and off the field with SWB’s National Office and Boston Program.
My time with Soccer Without Borders in Boston came about somewhat unconventionally. Originally, I was set to travel to SWB’s program in Granada, Nicaragua and work alongside the team of staff there, live with a local host family, and immerse myself in a place and a culture that was very different from my own. In April, as protests in Nicaragua intensified, we made adjustments to these plans; within a month I was living and working in Boston, MA. While in Boston, I worked as both an intern at SWB’s National Office, helping compile coaching resources and research, assisting with data collection and entry, and working on other projects as needed. In addition, to my time with the National Office, I also was able to plug into SWB’s programming with youth in East Boston.
To both my surprise and my excitement, my arrival in Boston coincided with the end of the spring season and summer staffing transitions, enabling me to overlap and learn from the current coaches and later continue programming with both the U12 Co-ed and U18 Girls teams. At SWB Boston, I immediately took on coaching responsibilities. I was also able to support and lead team “extravaganzas” and special programming, provide off-field support, and—of course—organize end-of-the-season team celebrations! After our regular season ended at the end of June, I continued to work with SWB’s middle and high school girls’ teams through pickup soccer games twice a week. These girl-only games allowed each of us to have a fun and healthy way to stay connected and work on our skills even after the formal season had come to an end. In addition to supporting these aspects of programming, I also jumped into coaching at SWB’s long-time partner, the Donald McKay Elementary School during my last three weeks in Boston. At McKay’s Summer Camp, I was one of two SWB coaches leading daily soccer sessions for students in 3rd through 5th grade. It was both an exciting and an intense practice in developing my patience—working with kids that age for a significant amount of time certainly heightened my appreciation for early childhood educators and coaches alike!
While coaching at SWB this summer, I learned about and witnessed the impacts of some intense childhood and adolescent experiences, mostly related to immigration, displacement, and the realities that come with being a newcomer teenager in the United States. As newcomers to the United States, many SWB players have varying levels of English and at first, many were hesitant to try communicating in a new language. When working with the U18 Girls team, I learned that many of our student athletes juggled their studies and soccer with after-school jobs or helping to take care of younger siblings at home. I strengthened my understanding of how trauma can impact youth and the ways in which sport can provide a safe outlet for managing the effects of those experiences.
The program revealed to me in a very proximal way some of the most challenging and isolating aspects of newcomers’ experiences, but it also provided me with a new appreciation for sport, team dynamics, and the cultivation of community. In Boston, I was granted the opportunity to strike up a number of extraordinary conversations; the kids I worked with provided me with a freshness of perspective and I frequently found myself reflecting on my own thoughts, fears, and worries, while also being transformed by some of their wisdom, insight, and humor. The U18 Girls in particular were my first friends in Boston and some of the kindest, strongest, and most lovable girls I have ever met. They brightened many of my days and encouraged me to believe that home can be made in the company you keep and that freedom can be found in everyday experiences.
Working for SWB helped me understand—both from my initial safety-inspired travel plans and in working side-by-side with girls whose lives have been entirely uprooted— that the “helicopter in the room,” the enormous privilege that many of us take for granted every day that grants us the ability to escape dangerous situations by virtue of our place of origin or the color of our skin, is real and has real implications for this field of work and those affected by it.
Before embarking on my summer adventure with SWB, I had the sense that it was soccer—the physicality, creativity, and beauty of the sport—that acted as the catalyst and the tool for positive social change. I’ve found that it is not about the soccer at all but rather about the growth and power that comes with being part of a team and a safe community
Each SWB practice always includes an opening and closing circle, which allowed for check-ins, chatting, shout-outs, and time for centering. In these spaces, before and after playing, I witnessed moments of joy and friendship. In talking to our players about their days and lives, there was always a stillness in our otherwise fast-paced and at times, challenging, lives on the field. It was in these opening and closing circles that I learned about the intricacies and the uniqueness of players’ lives. In coaching the younger players, these circles gave space for honesty and kindness that was not always present on the field.
It became a lived reality for me that SWB’s use of soccer is bigger than sport. Soccer at SWB is community, it is love, and it is bonds between people that have nothing to do with the drills or individual skill. It is not always just about the soccer. Sport and all that it offers is about community, it’s about love, and it’s about growing into a place of comfort. For some girls in SWB, soccer is not as an important piece of their lives like it has been in mine. Soccer, being on a team, and being surrounded by positive activity and role models is a mechanism for social cohesion, community building, and facilitating a safe and loving environment.
SWB uses soccer as a vehicle for positive social change for newcomer youth in East Boston. As a newcomer myself to Boston, though in a very different conception of the term, I found soccer to be a tremendously beneficial aspect to my own community involvement and assimilation. In playing and coaching I met friends and shared meals. I found moments of comfort in the familiar physicality and friendly face of competition. I was simultaneously supporting the community integration of newcomer youth through soccer and becoming integrated into a new community myself, also through sport.