This summer marked an incredible milestone in the collaboration between Soccer Without Borders and the community of Granada, Nicaragua. Through the U.S. State Department's International Sports Programming Initiative, we were able to bring the entire local coaching staff from Granada (plus four other key stakeholders in Nicaraguan girls' and women's soccer) to the US for two weeks of training and cultural immersion. We believe firmly in local solutions, authentic collaboration, and investing in local leadership. To truly provide the tools for local stakeholder to make change, however, takes a much greater investment in their skills, their knowledge, and their access to resources than had ever been possible.
To help support their transition to the US, we brought back several past volunteers as translators and guides. One of these was Ana Cate, a recent graduate of Auburn University and a member of the Nicaraguan women's national team. Ana shared her unique perspective on the being a part of this program and having the Nicaraguan leadership here in the U.S. this summer (published by ESPNW, Soccer Without Borders Changed My Perception, 7/2013):
"As the daughter, granddaughter, niece and cousin of Nicaraguans, yet born and raised in the United States, my perception of the country had always been through what I would describe now as rose-colored glasses. Family trips to Nicaragua were typical: weekends at the beach, pickup soccer games in the yard and nightly movie marathons at my grandmother's house. There may have been a little more trash in the gutters, a few more children in the streets during school hours, a few more soccer balls made out of trash or T-shirts -- all signs of a life different from mine -- but somehow those pieces did not add up in my head. My Nicaraguan cousins were kids having fun, just like me. It wasn't until I had the opportunity to return as an adult that both my eyes and my heart began to put those pieces back together. Kids played soccer with balls made from whatever they could find because real ones were an expensive luxury. Children were out of school because they were working to help support their families. Traveling to Granada, Nicaragua with Soccer Without Borders in May 2010 had started out as an opportunity to combine my passions for soccer and for helping others; I hadn't planned on it changing the way I lived my life and flipping my perceptions upside-down.
The 1999 Women's World Cup was in full swing when I was in the second grade, and Brandi, Mia and Michelle were plastered on every media outlet there was, "anything you can do, I can do better" ringing through my ears. Thanks to Title IX and those who embraced it, I now realize how lucky we were to not only have the opportunity to play the sports we loved, but to feel empowered to do so as well. We didn't have to fight the boys to let us play pickup soccer with them at recess, and we didn't have to beg our fathers to let us play on the local soccer team. We had leagues a plenty to play in, and dreams of using the game we loved to help pay for our educations because that was an actual possibility, a reality fought for by women who came before.
To go from a country with unbridled opportunity to one with a very different reality is humbling. It's a lesson in being thankful for what you have, while also putting fuel into a fire that you may have not even realize was aching to be lit. My first experience with Soccer Without Borders (SWB) in 2010 was like putting on glasses for the first time. The goal of the program is a simple, yet multilayered one: to use soccer as a vehicle for positive change in the lives of young girls in Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. SWB provides a safe and encouraging environment to not only learn and practice soccer skills, but life skills as well: responsibility, teamwork, patience, problem solving, pride, commitment. As members of the program, the girls are the stars of the show- there's no one telling them they can't, no one telling them they aren't good enough, and no one questioning why they are there in the first place.
That same year, while still a player at Auburn University, I became a member of the Nicaraguan Women's National Team. Fresh from the airport, the support and compassion of the girls was overwhelming. In the moments where my Spanish failed me, they were quick with a kind word or an understanding pat on the shoulder; it was in those moments that I have never been more proud to be a Nicaraguan. They didn't ask for sympathy or make excuses for the difficulties they faced. They did what was necessary to make it to practice in the 100-degree heat, each and every day, with a smile on their face and nothing but joy and pride to be able to play the game they loved and represent their country.
What struck me was that these girls had gotten to where they were -- representing their country on the national team -- with very few of the resources I had taken for granted through my soccer life. Well-kept fields on which to play, nationally trained and capable coaches to learn from, competitive leagues to build skills, and a university system that gave me an opportunity to use soccer as a means to get an affordable education while playing against the best in the country. I was literally in awe of my teammates' inner strengths every day, as we trained under the hot sun with a goal of making our country proud in competition.
As we traveled to the Central American Games in San Jose, Costa Rica this past spring, I experienced firsthand the discrepancy between the men's and women's programs. When we arrived in San Jose to our hotels, our first stop was at a four-star downtown hotel. As both squads unloaded their bags to get situated, the women's team was instructed to re-board the bus to head to our hotel, a perfectly comfortable place but an obvious slight by comparison. In spite of the disparity, it was us, the women, who brought home a silver medal. We had broken the centuries-old belief that the men were the only ones capable of putting Nicaragua on a national stage.
Last week, I found myself back with SWB, this time in New England for the second phase of the Inter-American Women's Soccer Exchange between the U.S. and Nicaragua. Sponsored by the SportsUnited Division of the U.S. Department of State, this exchange provides an intensive opportunity for 10 leaders from girls' and women's soccer initiatives in Nicaragua to share dreams and ideas with each other, finding common ground. During their 12 days in the U.S. they have learned from and observed many different levels of American culture and sports infrastructure, from the Boston Breakers professional team, to Dartmouth College's youth-day camps, to SWB Boston's Saturday morning practices. Collectively, they have articulated a vision for the future of Nicaraguan girls' and women's soccer. Individually, they have each been given an opportunity to plan and execute their very own action plan, taking the very first steps towards that collective goal.
There have been times in our group meetings where my heart has felt so full of pride for the passion contained in those tiny rooms. I feel pride not only for these future leaders of the Nicaraguan soccer movement, but the members of SWB who have dedicated weeks, months, and years to make it possible. I have seen fire in the eyes of each person as they talk about their program, or their team, or their students, or their teammates, and I can't help but be certain that they are the future. I think this exchange has truly represented what can happen when a small group of thoughtful and very much committed individuals come together to make a change."
Soccer Without Borders is teaming up with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (“ECA”) SportsUnited Division this summer for the second phase of the Inter-American Women’s Soccer Exchange (“Exchange”). In February, a team of recently graduated U.S. Women’s NCAA soccer players headed to Central America for the first phase of a two-way exchange between Nicaragua and the United States. Players and coaches traveled to three Nicaraguan cities, leading a series of skills and coaching clinics, as well as competing in two showcase games against the Nicaraguan U-20 Women’s National Team. As a part of the ECA SportsUnited Grants Program, the second phase will bring Nicaraguan coaches and leaders to the U.S.. This Exchange builds off of the relationships formed throughout our five years of program-building in Granada, and during phase one, to empower coaches and national advocates of girls’ soccer in Nicaragua.
In partnership with Soccer Without Borders Boston and with the support of the U.S. Embassy in Managua, phase two of the Exchange kicks off on June 19th in Boston, MA. The Exchange participants are an impressive group of coaches, players, and leaders hailing from all levels of Nicaraguan girls’ and women’s soccer. With representatives from public schools, SWB Nicaragua, FENIFUT, and the Nicaraguan Women’s National Team, Exchange participants are well-positioned to make a significant impact on the future of girls’ soccer in their home country.
This phase will expose the Nicaraguan coaches to multiple aspects of American culture and sports infrastructure, including the American university system and collegiate sports at Dartmouth College, recreational youth sports at camps run by Challenger Sports and MTW Coast Soccer, a sports-based youth development program at SWB Boston, and professional women’s soccer at a Boston Breakers practice and game. Throughout their time in the US, participants will learn key skills in facilitation, coaching, technology, and program design. They will also design an action plan to take home, implementing their ideas to expand and strengthen their local organizations and promote the growth of girls’ soccer in Nicaragua.
Follow the Exchange on Facebook or read more on the website!
More about the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ SportsUnited Division: The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ SportsUnited Division leads the U.S. Department of State’s international exchange efforts to bring the global community together through sports. Under its International Sports Programming Initiative, public and private U.S. based non-profit organizations may submit proposals to address one of four themes: Youth Sports Engagement, Sport for Social Change, Sport and Disability, and Sport and Health. Since 2002, the division has awarded 86 grants to U.S. non-profits to conduct programs in 57 countries around the world.
To celebrate the program's five year anniversary, the coaches had organized an activity called "Past, Present, and Future", with each floor of the FSF oficina representing one of those points in time. For the past, a video highlight reel and photo timeline, with each girl asked to sign the timeline at the point she came into FSF, and caption her favorite photos. For the present, a chance to snap a photo and write a letter for a time capsule, capturing the current moment to look back on in another five years. For the future, a mosaic of dreams for the program, with each girl asked to imagine her ideal Futbol Sin Fronteras in 2018 and contribute a square. As if the sheer artistry weren't enough, the imagination and dreaming was overwhelming as the girls showed off their depictions of FSF in the future.
The art was beautiful; there were elaborate drawings of the world with players from all over holding hands and donning FSF uniforms. There were captions: "I've graduated school" "I'm attending university" with pictures of pencils, teachers, schools. There were drawings of the National Stadium, with our Mariposa team in the starting lineup. More common than anything else, though, there were representations of team, with full hearts and hands linked, revealing the shared hope that this common bond will still be here for the girls in five, ten, twenty years. Love and friendship- born in a safe space where a girl is free to be herself, to become herself- are the foundations on which the rest is built.
One of the reasons I was drawn to Soccer Without Borders in the first place was its commitment to authenticity: honoring the value and voice of local stakeholders to shape the direction of the program. As one of SWB's three core values, my understanding of authenticity has evolved tremendously over the last five years as we have worked alongside the community of Granada to build this program. I've learned that creating a program that authentically addresses the most pressing needs of the community is not as simple as providing resources and materials, training local leaders, and stepping aside to see if change grows out of the norm. Authenticity is neither stepping aside nor standing behind, it is a lengthy process of evaluating strengths and weaknesses, hopes and challenges, and working together to have them align: an authentic collaboration.
Addressing longstanding challenges to forge new paths requires an authentic collaboration of stakeholders with different ideas, talents, backgrounds, resources, and understanding. Parents, city leaders, coaches, teachers, artists, researchers, men, women...and most importantly the girls themselves provide critical input as to how to work within the cultural system respectfully yet open the door to new opportunities. As with any collaboration, maneuvering through language, experience, opinion, ego, belief systems, and stereotypes from all sides can easily derail the process. To have reached this milestone of five years, and to see the mosaic of dreams for FSF that the girls created, says that this collaboration is one that the girls, the coaches, and the community have embraced.
Together, we are ready to bring that mosaic to life during the next five years. Thank you for your part in supporting FSF to forge these paths in the community of Granada and beyond.
ps. The Anniversary celebration was preceded by the Inter-American Women's Soccer Exchange, a State Department sponsored initiative that is looking to expand our work beyond Granada. Check out the links to read about the trip!
Before the girls of SWB Granada headed into the holiday season and school break with their families, we had the chance to host one of the most unifying, girls-specific events to-date.
One hundred and six girls, their parents, coaches, referees, and other community members gathered together for the fourth annual "Global Peace Games", or Copa de Paz as it is called in Nicaragua. The Global Peace Games are an opportunity for young people all over the world to articulate their commitment to doing their part in achieving the UN's Millenium Development goals. More simply, it is a tournament that symbolizes coming together across differences in support of peace. The signature event of the Global Peace Games is the reading of a letter from the United Nations followed by the signing of the Manifesto for Peace. By signing, players pledge to "respect all life, reject all violence, share with others, listen to understand, preserve the planet, and contribute to the development of community."
This event has ranked among the most special of SWB Granada events each year, yet in the past it has proved nearly impossible to organize the event solely for girls. Boys teams always fill in the holes, so that our girls can have opponents. We were determined for this year to be different. Throughout 2012, we had tripled our efforts to engage girls in schools through gym classes, and had developed strong relationships with a few schools. As the Global Peace Games drew near, we extended invitations to gym teachers at a few of those schools to organize and train a girls' team to play in the 2012 Peace Games. To our great surprise and fortune, a few of the invitations were accepted, allowing our SWB Granada participants the opportunity to compete against age and gender appropriate teams.
The four invited teams assembled next to the eight SWB Granada teams early the morning of the tournamnet, a short ways away from the playing fields. Clusters of brightly colored jerseys collectively jittered with excitement as the tournament grew near. As coaches prepared their teams to parade to the fields, the smattering of color shifted into organized lines. It was moving to see the girls proudly donning their respective jerseys and it was clear that the girls sensed a strong camaraderie within their teams. With no further instruction from their coaches, the lines moved forward towards the fields. As they did, the girls at the front of the line linked hands with their friends on opposing teams. The spontaneous and symbolic extension of friendship was strong and beautiful, just like the girls. That powerful moment set the tone for a fantastic day of competition balanced with the forging of new friendships.
Speaking of new friendships, we are proud to announce a new partnership with our friends at Activyst, who are developing new girl-specific products and supporting SWB Granada through their efforts. This month, they are donating $1 for every new "Like" to their Facebook page. Please consider liking their page to support SWB Granada!
Thank you for continuing to invest in us in 2013. We hope that you have a lovely holiday season filled with beautiful moments like those from our Global Peace Games.
Local Director SWB Granada
Cultural Exchange is one of five Core Activities at every SWB program. For the second year in a row, SWB Granada hosted its "Sports-based Youth Development Seminar and Culture Exchange" in early August, bringing 12 high-school aged students from across the United States to Granada to spend a week immersed in the culture of Granada, and the community of SWB. The week provided a chance for our older SWB participants to meet and befriend youth their own age, and our younger SWB participants to meet some fun new coaches. Fittingly, the theme of the week was "Los Olimpicos" as the London Olympics had just kicked off as the group arrived.
This was the tenth such week-long immersion trip that SWB has facilitated in Granada, and the ninth for me personally. The time in between each of these trips is the true meat of the program: girls committed to one another, to their coaches, and to their teams four days per week, every week. With each new group that visits, however, they get to show off their hard work and progress to a new audience, and welcome new members to the SWB family.
The high-schoolers' week involved four components: Peer exchange, Soccer (Playing and Coaching), Nicaraguan Culture, and the Seminar. Each of these was woven into the schedule through activities in a variety of forms, we danced, coached, played, discussed, cooked, reflected, questioned, walked, and toured.
Simultaneously, the new SWB season was kicking off with an Olympic theme. We were all curious to what extent the girls knew about the Olympics, and other sports in general, but were pretty confident they would embrace the spirit, represented by colors, competition, and collaboration. We started the week with an Opening Ceremony followed by the Olympic pledge, division of teams by continent, and a three floor non-soccer Olympics, with Team events on the first floor, Field events on the second floor, and Track events on the third floor. Each of the five teams chose representatives to complete the events on each floor. As one 9 year-old participant crossed the finish line for the marathon (26.2 back and forths across the room), dripping with sweat, I watched her swell with pride. She couldn't wait to get home and tell her Mom she had run her first marathon, a distance she estimated was "casi cinco millas (about five miles)." Just a slight over-estimation, but she earned it!
Overall, the week was an incredibly unique and special blend of shared culture through a mutual passion for sport. The feeling that I had as I boarded the plane to Boston, though, couldn't be attributed to any one activity, any one moment. Some kind of combination of it all, paired with the intangible feeling of being such a welcomed part of a community that had no precedent for what we were asking them to embrace, yet has opened its doors and its arms to SWB for nearly five years. It's the pride in a girl's eyes when she says "I'm a Mariposa", "I'm an Estrella". The confidence in Helen, a former participant and current coach, as she accepted a trophy on behalf of SWB in front of all men's teams in the first ever women's soccer league in Granada. These feelings all come together in this overwhelming feeling of appreciation for all the people who have invested so much in creating this space, but also in finding a way to truly exist across borders, across differences, with people so different from themselves. Both sides have invested so much in that; investments of patience, of time, of resources, of explanations, of reserved judgement, of missed sleep, and about a million gallons of sweat.
Thank you all for your continued investment in the community of SWB Granada; we look forward to checking in with you all again at the end of the Fall season!
All the best,
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