An organization based in San Francisco, California is using the beautiful game to bring positive change to marginalized youth across the world. The story of Soccer Without Borders is an inspiring look at what effect soccer can have for children and communities anywhere.
In 2005, the organization’s founder and current Director Ben Gucciardi began thinking of a way to link soccer with social development. The idea had been sparked by a failed plan of Gucciardi and friend Kyle Hartman to bike from San Francisco to the southernmost point in Argentina. The trip never developed thanks to some logistical problems, but the dream survived.
Using the resources available at Lehigh University, Gucciardi began doing some preliminary research into creating such an organization that would go to places and teach soccer.
The seeds of Soccer Without Borders were planted and after winning an entrepreneurial competition on campus, the duo was rewarded with start-up money for their venture. A pilot program was completed in Nicaragua and Gucciardi learned to make a website after returning and the rest is history. “From there, it has really just took a life of its own, says Gucciardi, “New people get on board and bring many new and great ideas to the table.”
The vision of those two men has been transformed into a group that has brought positive change to marginalized youth across the world. Soccer Without Borders has performed work in a whole host of countries and in addition has also helped bring soccer equipment, scholastic supplies and financial assistance where it has been needed most.
The group’s main goal is on helping youth by developing their self-esteem in a fun and learning environment. The programs however do not focus purely on the individual. What makes Soccer Without Borders quite unique is that there is a primary focus on community building. Gucciardi states that his organization attempts to “both strengthen existing communities and also bring people together through soccer who might not otherwise have the chance to interact in a meaningful way.”
Programs have taken place in several countries in the few short years that Soccer Without Borders has been in existence. The organization has ongoing programs in Oakland, California, New York City, NY, Nicaragua, Argentina, Guatemala, Uganda (see sidebar) and an annual camp in El Salvador. This is addition to past projects which took place in South Africa and Zambia. Gucciardi says that the main goal for now is to continually develop the ongoing programs rather than expanding into new areas.
Another focus of the group’s work in these places deals specifically with females. Soccer in many places around the world is considered a man’s game and in many cases young women have limited opportunities to play. Gucciardi saw early on the huge interest from female athletes in the U.S to help his cause (75% of the volunteer applicants were women) and recognized the chance he had to work with girls in the countries that Soccer Without Borders went to.
One of these volunteers, current assistant coach at Dartmouth College and director of the Granada, Nicaragua Girls Program, Mary McVeigh, is astounded at the success of these programs, “As an American female soccer player, I never considered the possibility that girls wouldn’t be allowed to play sports. In Nicaragua, while it’s not explicitly forbidden, there are very few opportunities and resources for girls and sports, and many parents believe soccer to be too dangerous for their daughters. One of the most unbelievable parts of this project is to be able to share my soccer experience and love of sports with young girls who may have never seen an example of a female athlete, and witness first-hand their love for the game being born.”
McVeigh also points out that through soccer these girls can learn important life lessons, “Watching their confidence begin to grow in soccer and with their new friends gives me hope that they will carry this confidence to other parts of their lives.”
One of the ways that Gucciardi believes Soccer Without Borders has been so successful is because of partnerships with local organizations. Allying themselves with grassroots groups has been key to developing programs and ensuring that those same programs continue long after Soccer Without Borders has left. Gucciardi states that the ultimate objective for the international projects is for them to be completely locally run and sustainable with Soccer Without Borders playing a support role and to send volunteers when needed.
Contributions from individuals and businesses have kept the organization financially viable and able to follow through on their overseas and domestic efforts. More than 700 people have contributed funds or equipment to the group’s various programs.
Businesses such as the Soccer Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Ruffneck Wear Inc. (www.ruffneckwear.com), a soccer scarves company based in Seattle Washington have been “invaluable” says Gucciardi “in providing financial assistance and outreach”. Continually finding financial resources remains the company’s biggest challenge according to the director.
When posed with the question of how important soccer is in reaching out to children and communities in various countries, Gucciardi makes a superb point by saying, “In the same way a hammer won’t build a shelf by itself, football can’t develop youth on its own. It is a tool that can be very effectively used by passionate and caring people to make a significant and life-changing impact in the lives of young people.”
Luckily for Gucciardi, there has been no shortage of individuals ready to volunteer their time and efforts in order to help people using the beautiful game as their vehicle. In fact, Soccer Without Borders can count on a volunteer base of about 115 people now. Volunteer Mary McVeigh believes that soccer is a “universal language” and gives credit to a sport that has “simplicities which make it accessible and complexities that make it continually challenging and never boring.”
The organization’s achievements in 2009 were very impressive. Offices were created in Nicaragua and Uganda, as well as an entire community center in the latter. The Ambassadors program was expanded to include individuals from 13 states and provinces in the United States and Canada raising over $7,000. Soccer Without Border enjoyed increased media coverage being featured in such outlets as ESPN, The New York Times, and a whole host of other publications. In addition to this the company also relocated to permanent headquarters in Berkeley, California.
Looking ahead to the rest of 2010, Soccer Without Border will continue to work on existing programs and seek to expand in the United States with events and projects in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., San Jose, and Seattle.
Soccer Without Borders is a wonderful organization that is ensuring soccer plays a positive role in the lives of youth. Surely, the more organizations like this in the world, the brighter the future seems for the world’s greatest game and the children who grow up playing it.
If you’d like to volunteer or donate to Soccer Without Borders please visit the organization’s website at www.soccerwithoutborders.org