Impact Nicaraguan Girls Playing Soccer for Change

by Soccer Without Borders
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FSF players compete in the league championship
FSF players compete in the league championship

In February 2008, we held our first practice on a dirt field next to the chicken factory in Granada, Nicaragua. A herd of goats lazily wandered through, and the fact that the town’s water had gone out coupled with the blazing heat made us wonder who would come. Cora would be one of them.

Cora lived just on the other side of the field in a house with 13 other people. Raised by her extended family after her mother passed away, Cora spent her days as one of many mouths to feed; soccer with the neighborhood boys was her outlet, the nearby field her escape. That day, she wandered across the glass-covered dirt field in her flip-flops, kicking them off immediately to juggle with us. I passed her a pair of sneakers, more for my own peace of mind than hers.

From that very first practice, it became clear that Cora’s talent at the age of 15 far exceeded this backyard dirt field. Under the banner of a young Soccer Without Borders, we were not there to identify and develop talent. We were there to work with community leaders to build a safe space for all girls to learn and grow, on the field and off. While discovering Granada’s first superstar was not on our agenda, here she was. And so our relationship with Cora began.

In the coming months, we created the city’s first girls-specific after-school program. The program grew quickly to meet the need and demand, adding off-field educational activities and an earned equipment system. Cora’s potential was top of mind with every decision.

A year later, our hopes for Cora were realized: she was selected for the U-20 Nicaraguan Women’s National team. Equipment support and a handful of coaching hours were no longer enough. She needed bus fare to and from the capital daily, and a hearty lunch before practice. She needed soap and detergent to accommodate the extra dirty clothes, and a tutor to help her balance her studies with the additional demands on her time. Most importantly, she needed someone to convince her family that this was a worthy use of her time, knowing that her absence at home meant that everyone else would carry a larger burden.

Nevertheless, we pressed on, devoting at times more than a third of our limited human and financial resources to Cora. A volunteer rode the bus with her to Managua most days. Another met weekly with her school director. We were all on call for her family, who began to steal Cora’s bus fare on days she was scheduled to travel solo. In the face of such need, using the money for sports was viewed as selfish; it had to be shared like everything else.

There were good days and bad days. One evening, Cora fainted. We scooped her up and taxied to the free hospital. She wandered out an hour later with a torn scrap of paper in her hand with a single number on it. “This is my sugar level,” she explained.

That day began a series of futile doctor’s visits and more scraps of paper, eventually leading to the worry that she shouldn’t be playing soccer. But Cora was slated to travel with the national team for the first time, her first international travel. Her appearance for her country sent a ripple of pride through the program, and renewed our sense of purpose and commitment to helping Cora reach her potential. She returned home from the trip confident and proud, but also distant. She had changed.

Cora began skipping school and practice, mysteriously disappearing for days at a time. We met with the school counselor weekly, and walked her to school in the morning. It wasn’t enough. The level of psychological and emotional support she needed was beyond our capacity.

I knew that there would be tough decisions on how to allocate limited resources in human service work. What I didn’t expect was how emotional that decision could become as you weigh the needs of the real people behind it, and grapple with your ability to meet those needs. How do you choose one over another? How do you know when to let go? No matter what we tried, we couldn’t bring Cora back into the fold.

I visit Cora, and now her son, every time I am in Granada. We reminisce about her trip to El Salvador and the first day we met at that dirt field. She encourages all of the young girls in her neighborhood to join the program. She never asks for a thing, though I know she misses having a pair of cleats to call her own. I think about the program as it is today: year-round, safe and private facilities, a school uniform and scholarship program, a trained psychologist director, full-time coaches, close-knit teams, and family engagement. I wonder if now it would be enough.

I could not be prouder of the girls in our program today, and the coaches who support them. These girls and coaches are truly “rompiendo fronteras” — breaking boundaries — every day. They overcome obstacles so great that worrying about a bare foot on a glass-covered field seems silly. Yet while success keeps us pressing forward, it’s failure, the girls we couldn’t reach, the girls we couldn’t keep, the Cora’s, who inspire us to dig deeper, reflect harder, and never aim for anything less than our full potential.

Copa de la Paz 2016
Copa de la Paz 2016
FSF players celebrate Women
FSF players celebrate Women's Football Day

Links:

SWB Players at CONCACAF event
SWB Players at CONCACAF event

This August, girls from 23 countries traveled to the ESPN Disney Wide World of Sports for the CONCACAF Girls Under-15 championships, an event held just one other time previously (2014) with member countries. This year marked the greatest participation to date, up from 16 participating countries in 2014.

If you had happened upon the fields that day, you might think it was like any other girls' soccer tournament. Team cheers rippled across the impeccably-manicured grass, and parents looked on expectantly from the stands, snapping pictures and analyzing every blow of the whistle. But this was no ordinary tournament.

For many member associations like FENIFUT (Nicaragua), this marked the first time ever that they were able to field an Under-15 girls team to compete in an international tournament. There are countless obstacles to fielding a team at that age group, the most obvious being the resources for coaching, travel, and equipment, much of which was provided by CONCACAF for this event. Even with those key resources in place, however, there is the challenge of identifying, training, and convening a team of school-aged participants with little-to-no grassroots infrastructure in cities across the country. Traveling to and from practice as a 13 or 14 year old girl can be unsafe, as few families have private transportation or additional resources to time off from work to travel to and from. Teams can solve these challenges by recruiting largely from their capital cities, reducing opportunities for other girls. Several teams also filled roster spots with dual U.S. citizens, some of whom were already living in the United States and had access to youth leagues and training from a young age. This method also reduces the complicated paperwork involved in acquiring passports and visas, which can be unpredictable and keep a player from representing her country for reasons totally out of her control.

We are incredibly proud of Reyna, Crystal, and Valeria (pictured), three Soccer Without Borders Nicaragua participants who competed for Nicaragua in these championships as some of the only girls from outside of Managua. They traveled back and forth to practices in the capital throughout the Spring and Summer, along with Natalya, Keyselling, Alejandra, and Mariangeles, balancing school and training as they made history as a team. Behind them was the support of a dedicated coaching staff troubleshooting challenges, caring teammates pushing them to be better players, and an SWB community that encouraged them every step of the way. Thank you to everyone who made this milestone possible, and congratulations to Team Nicaragua who posted their first-ever points as a team with a 1-1 tie with Grenada and a 1-0 win over St. Vincent during the tournament!

Links:

Training with the national team
Training with the national team

Preface: Today is a Global Giving Bonus Day! If you have considered making a donation to SWB Nicaragua this year, please consider donating this morning before matching funds run out. Thank you so much for your continued support.

When Soccer Without Borders launched a girls program in Granada, Nicaragua in 2008, the state of girls and women's soccer in the country was inequitable to say the least. In a city of more than 110,000, there was not a single community sports league for girls, yet there were boys soccer and baseball leagues in virtually every age group. Nationally, there were four divisions of men's premier soccer, and just one nascent, under-funded premier league for women where many games got canceled due to lack of resources for travel.

Change happens when systemic decisions at the top are met by a groundswell from communities who believe that things can be different. Together with community members, school officials, and the Nicaraguan Football Federation (FENIFUT), Soccer Without Borders has worked towards a equitable opportunities for girls for almost a decade. For our part, we've established seven year-round teams in Granada, reached thousands of girls throughout the city through clinics and camps, hosted an annual tournament that has grown to 18 teams from four cities, and most recently launched a secondary school league (a huge shoutout to Pomona-Pitzer Women's Soccer and Simply Sharing Our Shirts for their support of the league). We've also supported community organizations and schools in other cities throughout Nicaragua to do the same, including Matagalpa, Diriamba, Las Salinas, Ometepe, Managua, and Jalapa. 

Meanwhile, women's soccer champions at the Federation are working tirelessly to turn limited resources into maximum opportunity. Last year, a girls U-17 national team convened for the first time and competed in Guatemala, including SWB's very own goalkeeper, Valeria. The women's premier league is now supported by equipment packages and funding for coaches. These steps are progress not only for women's soccer, but for sending the message that men and women, boys and girls, are equal and equally deserving of opportunities inside of sport and out.

This month we saw another huge milestone achieved: the launch of a U-15 girls national team. This team will represent Nicaragua in Orlando for a CONCACAF tournament in August. The fact that it is already training for that opportunity is a massive shift in precedent.  

At Soccer Without Borders, our girls play for passion, for each other, and for their own personal development as students, athletes, and people. But after years of practices with little or no competition, the creation of a national team at this age is a dream come true. While it is rare for girls outside of the capital of Managua to be selected at all due to transportation barriers and school schedules, eight Soccer Without Borders participants were selected to train with the U-15 national team, with a chance to make the final travel roster to be announced this month. Within the group, they average more than four years with SWB; one has been with the program since the very beginning. The trust between the Federation and Soccer Without Borders allows the girls to train with us during the week, and link up with the national team on weekends so as not to miss school and to enable them to travel safely to and from.

Margaret Mead said it best: Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has. We are so proud of every girl, coach, supporter, and leader who made this change possible!

School league
School league

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Two years ago, we released a report announcing the Soccer Without Borders Granada Education program, determined to support our participants to break norms and graduate from secondary school. Research shows that expected lifetime earnings for a girl in the developing world increase by about 10-15% for every additional year of secondary school. Still, for girls in Granada, there are significant barriers to secondary school enrollment, let alone completion. As a refresher, some quick stats:

  • While primary school enrollment for Nicaraguan girls is 85%, only 56% will reach 6th grade and just 45% will enroll in secondary school.
  • The attendance rate for Nicaraguan girls in primary school is 83.6%, yet in secondary school it drops to 57.9%, meaning girls miss more than 2 days per week of school on average each week.
  • The school life expectancy for a Nicaraguan girl is 10.2 years.
  • Nearly half of Nicaraguan girls are pregnant by age 20, with over a quarter of births to girls age 14-18 (this rate is much lower for girls who stay in school!).

For the second year in a row, we are pleased to announce an academic pass rate of 86% among our program participants. Our program includes girls ages 7-20, covering all grades throughout primary and secondary school.

This year, we were able to dig a little deeper to see the relationship between program participation rates and academic advancement. As it turns out every single girl with program attendance of 76% or higher passed their grade. Among those with attendance rates between 51-75%, 92% passed their grade. Among those with attendance of 26%-50%, the academic pass rate dropped to 85%. Finally, for those who attended less than 25% of program activities throughout the year, the pass rate dropped to 75%, and just 45% among the oldest girls. These data provide important insight that will be used to continue to improve the program, but also suggest a correlation between greater program participation and improved educational outcomes, especially in secondary school.

There are many barriers facing girls particpiation in the program, many of the same barriers they face to attend school regularly. From responsibilities in the home, to a lack of precedent, to seeking employment, to unplanned pregnancies and recurring health issues, the statistics are not in their favor. Yet the positive influence of a team, the support of a caring mentor, and the self-confidence that consistently correlates with athletic participation can combat these challenges. As we look ahead, we aim to address these barriers head on, ensuring that every girl have the chance to participate fully in school and in sport, and is supported to reach her full potential. 

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Future
Future

As we look ahead to an exciting 2016 with new growth and opportunities, please join us in celebrating some of 2015's top moments...moments you have made possible through your support:

Top 5 of 2015:

5. Expansion to La Villa: Our newest program location took shape in early 2015 and has grown leaps and bounds since then, with two new girls' teams now operating weekly in La Villa. This site will increase the number of weekly hours availalbe in 2016, and already had its first participants qualify for secondary school scholarships!

4. Copa De La Paz: While the Women's World Cup in Canada was the year's pinnacle event in women's soccer, SWB Nicaragua continued to build on its own cup: the Peace Cup. Eighteen teams from 4 Nicaraguan cities came together for the largest annual community girls' soccer tournament in the country. 

3. National Team Support: For the first time since 2009, a member of the SWB family was selected for a Nicaraguan National Team! Valeria, one of our goalkeepers, made the final roster of the U-17 national team and traveled to Guatemala to represent her country. In advance of the tournament, a select team of SWB players competed against the U-17 national team in a friendly match to help their preparations. We are thrilled to continue to work with the Federation to support the growth of girls and women's soccer across the country.

2. Education Program Continued Expansion: We announced early in the year that 86% of our participants advanced from one grade to the next from 2014 to 2015. While only 56% of students who enter primary school even reach 6th grade, at FSF our girls are working hard to not only finish primary, but advance through secondary school and beyond. In 2015, the education program continued to expand its support with 28 scholarship recipients, 7 new computers, hundreds of school supplies distributed, a leadership council formed, and multiple future-focused workshops throughout the year. We are looking forward to expanding the program further in 2016 with the addition of an "ultimo año" workshop series, computing classes, and preparations for university scholarships.

1. Nicaraguan Co-Directors Take the Reigns: In January, Cesar Morales and Veronica Balladares became our first-ever Nicaraguan Co-Directors. With a combined 11 years of experience with SWB, they certainly put their stamp on the program, overcoming new challenges and building new partnerships that lay the foundation for future growth. 

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Organization Information

Soccer Without Borders

Location: Cambridge, MA - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.soccerwithoutborders.org
Project Leader:
Mary McVeigh
Cambridge, MA United States
$38,926 raised of $50,000 goal
 
1,258 donations
$11,074 to go
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