At Soccer Without Borders, we end every practice by putting our hands in and chanting 1, 2, 3, TOGETHER! This may sound like a routine practice ritual that teams do without thinking about it. But here, it’s different. The players shout it at the top of their lungs and listen as the sound echoes off the school walls. The players at SWB have come from all over the world and are now finding their path in a new country. They share similar challenges and are truly facing these together. ‘Together’ means something, so they say it with heart. And besides, yelling is super fun… so, why not!
I began volunteering with SWB in 2015 following the comment from a friend who had heard of the organization but not been involved. Arriving at my first practice, I had no idea what to expect. I knew that most of the players on the team had recently immigrated to the US from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and other Central American countries, many of them making this journey without their parents or family. I, on the other hand, had “migrated” to Oakland from Berkeley… and I could go back home and see my parents any day of the week. On top of that, my Spanish was mediocre to non-existent, so I was having some trouble picturing how I would connect with these young men.
That is, of course, because I underestimated two things. The first was how unbelievably friendly and warm the players would be. They were welcoming from the start and truly made me feel part of the team despite the fact that I said my favorite player on Arsenal was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and not Alexis Sanchez. Definitely should have said Alexis. The second thing I underestimated was the power soccer has at connecting strangers, language barrier or not. From the moment we stepped on the field, we were communicating through play, and I learned so much about each player by the way they expressed themselves with the ball. After that first day, I knew that I was a part of something very special. Over the next year and a half, I had the privilege of helping them develop as both players and young men.
I could write about so many aspects of this team and each player individually, but two qualities stand out:
The first is the maturity of these young men – far exceeding what you’d expect for someone their age. I can only imagine what a challenge it is to come to a new country, where you don’t speak the primary language and not have your family there for support. A challenge like that forces you to grow up faster. The result was a team full of leaders. When trouble arose during games, it was the players who were there first to support each other. During one game, the opposing team was frustrated that they were losing and began playing physically and trying to intimidate our players. Whenever tempers would begin to flare, our captains reminded the team to just play and let our game talk for us. As a result, our team remained calm and played beautiful soccer while our opponent accumulated red cards and lost their composure. After the game the referees stressed how much they appreciated the way our team carried itself. As their coach, I was more proud of their composure than the fact that we had won.
The second quality was the immense passion and joy the team brought to every single minute of every single practice. One Saturday, we planned an inter-program tournament to celebrate the end of the fall season. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the rainiest days of the year. Sure, playing in the rain can be fun, but this was more like playing in the Bay! There were large parts of the field with at least 4 inches of standing water where the ball would just stop and float. This didn’t stop the players from having a blast. For six straight hours they slid and laughed but also worked hard and competed. We all walked away from that day with smiles from ear to ear.
Head Coach Ben has created a wonderful, safe environment with this organization. The positivity starts with him and continues on through the coaches like Omar who is remarkable: he’s so good at connecting with his players and teaching them valuable lessons without ever being overly-controlling. He is fair and fun and the players respect him from the moment they meet him. The players have all bought into this environment and are totally invested in fostering the positivity. It’s incredible to watch new players gain confidence, become coaches and leaders in their own right, and then support the next group of new members.
This program is making a significant difference in people’s lives. The time I spent volunteering was truly fulfilling. I walked away every single day feeling happy and clear minded. I can truly say I got every bit as much myself from this program as I gave to it. Saying goodbye to the team was tough but I know I’ll find the time and place to contribute to it again. To anyone who is considering volunteering, easy decision: Just do it!