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Coming Home: How Soccer Without Borders Is Building A Bridge To The Next Generation

“It’s a population that is facing so many challenges, but for the most part, soccer is a huge piece of their culture”

It’s a sunny winter morning when I meet with Ben Gucciardi outside the Soccer Without Borders office at Oakland International High School, in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood. The school is decorated with colorful murals, and the courtyards feature flowering fruit trees. It’s the time of rebirth, with spring just around the corner.

And somehow, that seems like the perfect metaphor for the Soccer Without Borders program.

“The first experience that I had like this was working at a community center in the Mission (District of San Francisco) called Jamestown. It's a great organization, an after-school enrichment program for youth, and one of the things that they do is a sports component,” Gucciardi, a native of San Francisco, says. “The sports director was really passionate about creating opportunity for girls, which was very, very rare at that time, especially for young, and mostly low-income Latina women to be playing sports. So, that was really her focus—to create these opportunities, and it was an awesome experience, to see how much it meant to the girls.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]That’s what I wanted to find out. How could you use the platform of soccer or a sports team to talk about social issues, and really make it something powerful?[/quote]

Gucciardi helped out with the Jamestown program each summer, when he would return home to San Francisco from Lehigh University, (where he played for the nationally ranked Mountain Hawks soccer team).

“That sort of planted the seed, that sports could be used in this very specific way,” he explains, “creating opportunities where before there were none, and there’s this other element of it—it’s not just about sports itself, but also about access and social justice, which resonated with me a lot.”

Practice begins on the field at Oakland International High School.

This inspired Gucciardi first to further his studies, picking up an accelerated masters degree in education (also at Lehigh), and then taking a closer look at how people learn outside the classroom. While playing for the Mountain Hawks, he felt that his experience was fraught with missed opportunities; here was a case where a close-knit community wasn’t taking advantage of that environment to talk about important issues and learn from one another’s experiences.

“That’s what I wanted to find out. How could you use the platform of soccer or a sports team to talk about social issues, and really make it something powerful?” he says.

A quote attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca states that “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

“Randomly, there was an entrepreneurship contest at Lehigh, and I wrote this idea up that I called ‘Soccer Without Borders,’ at that time, thinking of it more in an international context,” says Gucciardi.

He won.

At first, he envisioned it as a way for kids to learn in communities with limited access to schooling—an idea that, in fact, harkens back to Ancient Greece, when the gymnasium was not only a place of physical training, but also of intellectual pursuits. He first tested the idea on a visit to Nicaragua and El Salvador in 2006, where he met with existing groups and added a sports component. But it wasn’t until his partner, Lauren—then working for an organization called the International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement agency—opened his eyes to the issues facing the roughly 70,000 refugees entering the United States each year, that SWB began to become what it is today.

The sign-in board, decorated by SWB athletes.

“It started on this field (just to the south of the current SWB field at OIHS), before it was a baseball field. The school here was empty for a long time,” he says, pointing just to our left. “We did an Oakland refugee community soccer camp, and it was just awesome. The first day there were like, 20 kids, and then the next day 25, and then 30.” Coincidentally, that was the same year (2007) that OIHS—a school dedicated to teaching refugees from all over the world arriving in the Bay Area—opened its doors. The school didn’t have a sports budget, so the administrators came to Gucciardi with an idea. Why not partner with his program? It was a natural fit. What was that about preparation and opportunity again?

And, of course, it grew—from one boys team in the fall, to boys and girls teams in the spring. Now, it expands well beyond the field and across the country. The main SWB administrative center is in Boston, and there are other SWB programs in Greeley, Colorado, and in Baltimore, Maryland, with more cities on the way in the future. The curriculum includes SAT prep courses and help with applying to college for the most advanced students, as well as mentoring and consistent engagement with teachers for those struggling more than others. Language development is another key issue that SWB is looking to address, through integration into practice, such as having a word of the day, with a discussion of the meaning of that word—and those words typically have a deeper meaning for the students, like “overcome” or “resilience.”

“The original vision was to use sport as a platform, so we started making that vision a reality; we started doing education sessions, academic support, interventions with some of the kids who were really struggling academically, or even socially. And, with time, we were able to say, ‘this is something that kids are really getting a lot out of,’ which allowed us to apply for some bigger grants.”

It has also meant that the local SWB program can grow with the increasing size of the refugee population in Oakland. Once OIHS was at its limit in terms of students it could take on, newcomer programs were started at other schools in the area—and with that, SWB extended the area it’s serving to help meet the needs of those children and young adults.

“There aren’t a lot of programs that are specifically for that population, there has been a huge influx of kids (unaccompanied minors) coming into the U.S. by themselves, from Central America,” he adds. “It’s a population that is facing so many challenges, but for the most part, soccer is a huge piece of their culture, something they can buy into, that they can use to start building communities, relationships here and everything. So our program has been seen as a good intervention for them.”

This is, in part, because Oakland is a refugee resettlement city and because of the connections that many families in the area have to Central American countries.

Coaches and players meeting to discuss practice.

“Philosophically, Oakland is a very welcoming city. San Francisco as well, being a sanctuary city, for newcomers,” he says. “But I don’t think that anyone anticipated this volume of unaccompanied minors.” Gucciardi estimates that Oakland has seen 500 such unaccompanied minors arrive in just the past 12 months, in addition to the roughly 400 refugees—adults, children, families—that arrive every year. (That statistic, of course, doesn’t include the immigrant population not considered to be refugees.) This has proven to be a challenge both for the city and for the kids, adjusting to new environments, new languages, and new cultures as they start trying to build a life for themselves.

Fortunately, for a number of these kids, SWB provides a universal language and a welcoming communitymmediately, they belong.

“In terms of the coaches, a lot of the best coaches that we’ve had are youth that have come through the program,” Gucciardi says. “They really understand a lot of the issues facing the kids, and the psychology coming into this situation. Also, some of the coaches were volunteers for a long time with us, so they got to know the program really well before taking on more responsibilities.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]This is a population that is growing everywhere. In the U.S., in Europe?—?and it’s going to keep happening.[/quote]

While he feels that his role is gradually evolving into more of an administrative one, as the SWB community grows and the program evolves, Gucciardi—named a Champion of Change by the White House in 2015—remains hands on, and is rarely not found on the field in some capacity. “The place where I still feel like I need to be very involved is with some of the kids struggling the most, and I think that part of that is that I’ve been here for so long. I know what’s going on with the kids, and I can draw the line more than maybe a newer coach could. So much of the program is about making it fun and welcoming, and that’s really the heart of it, but there are also those moments where you have to be firm. It can be tough to be tough.”

Clearly, he’s figured out that balance, though. As we’re sitting there on two folding chairs talking outside his office, every student that passes by, without exception, smiles and says hello to him. And sometimes, those most challenging moments give way to the greatest joys when running a program like this.

“I think that they’re engaged at a different level when they’re here,” Gucciardi says, “when they’re surrounded by their teammates and with their coaches that they like.” He adds, “You might understand things differently, depending on your context.” The subtext: The learning needs to continue and to be reinforced outside the classroom. “When you’re coming here, you’re coming here to be healthy, to make good choices, to support each other. If you can create that culture, then that becomes the ethos of Soccer Without Borders. It’s not just about playing soccer, though of course we want to do that, too,” he says with a smile. “It’s about constantly picking each other up.”

Soccer is a powerful motivator in itself, too. The draw of traveling to a soccer tournament with your team is important leverage to focusing more on studies and making the right decisions in other areas of life. The results speak for themselves.

“This is a population that is growing, everywhere,” he says, “in the U.S., in Europe—and it’s going to keep happening.”

He continues, “For me, I know that this is work that I’m supposed to be doing. We’re all good at something. If you can figure out the thing that you’re good at, and do that every day, then that’s very, very rewarding.

“We have a kid right now who is going to play soccer at San Francisco State (University) next year, and he was this close to being expelled from (OIHS), this close to joining a gang. He was really in trouble with me, with the teachers, with the other players, with the referees. Now, he’s helping the younger kids. He’s doing well in his classes. And he’s going to San Francisco State to play soccer.”

While this student is a success story, there have also been those who haven’t made the same choices—for Gucciardi, those cases are also motivation, because it makes it clear how delicate the balance is and how important programs like SWB are for the future of these kids.

“When you ask him,” Gucciardi says of his college-bound student athlete, “what was it that helped you get to where you’re going, and he says Soccer Without Borders—of course I’m going to go to work and figure out whatever it takes to do this.”

The mural that hangs just inside the entrance to the SWB office at OIHS.

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