Players PromiseDec 06, 2018

Players Promise: Soccer Without Borders

At Soccer Without Borders, they call them newcomers - the refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers who have come to the United States in hope of something better, in search of safety and opportunity. They are a diverse group, from a wide range of countries and backgrounds. Many of them are only children when they arrive. These newcomers often find themselves alone and isolated. They may not speak the language or understand the basics of navigating their new home. They have sometimes lived through unimaginable hardship and trauma. To Soccer Without Borders, these are individuals in desperate need of support, love and respect.

Public and private infrastructure exists to help these newcomers, and many positive things are being done to aid them. However, there are gaps in the safety net and problems that traditional approaches have trouble addressing. The founder of Soccer Without Borders, Ben Gucciardi, a life-long soccer player and a student of how sports can intersect with social change, is a strong believer in the ability of the game he loves to fill some of those gaps and address those problems. Armed with that belief, he has helped build an organization that uses soccer to “provide an avenue for positive engagement, a platform for personal growth, and a toolkit for a brighter future.”

The idea for Soccer Without Borders began in Oakland where Gucciardi was pursuing a graduate degree. His wife, who was his girlfriend at the time, was working in refugee resettlement and they began to notice a need. “All of these kids that have come to Oakland as refugees didn’t have much going on in the summer,” said Gucciardi, “So, we did a refugee summer camp in 2007 and 20 kids came the first day and then 30 and then 40.”

Not only was the camp a success, but they saw that it made a significant impact in the community. This led to more camps, which eventually led to the formation of local teams. Soon, other cities were coming on board and the organization was becoming something bigger and more formal.

“The first four years everyone that was working was volunteers,” said Gucciardi, “now it’s a much more formal entity, with payroll, and taxes and a formal board of directors and all of those things. But that was very much not the case in the beginning, it was very much a grassroots effort.”

That grassroots effort has grown into an organization with over 28 full-time staff and 50 part-timers. They have worked in 11 different countries with youth from more than 65 nations. The organization currently has programs in 5 US cities and has done collaborations and consultations in several others. In addition, they have done important work around the globe, in places like Nicaragua and Uganda. What began as a small camp for local refugees in Oakland has blossomed into a vision for soccer-based programming that can be adapted to communities around the world.

All of the sudden you have 18 friends and a coach who is looking out for you."

There are a number of issues newcomers to the United States struggle with and Soccer Without Borders sees many of them first hand. They will often refer families for help with housing, food and for mental health support. But, according to Gucciardo, there are a few issues with which the organization itself is perfectly positioned to help. Among those he cites three of primary importance; social isolation, the language barrier and dealing with trauma.

Social isolation, according to Gucciardi, is a huge challenge for young people that are new to this country, and Soccer Without Borders believes the game can help break down the walls of that isolation.

“They’ve lost contact with their community of friends,” said Gucciardi “They’re in a new place. They don’t have people that they feel comfortable with. They’re kind of just trying to figure things out. Having a team is really powerful for that. All of the sudden you have 18 friends and a coach who is looking out for you, right away you can become a part of something really positive and I think that makes a huge difference for the kids.”

Newcomers also struggle with language skills, another area where soccer can provide an important bridge, both through direct programming and through the interaction of players and coaches.

“The language development piece is something that we’ve worked on a lot and put a lot of time into,” said Gucciardi, “Each of our practices has a word of the day, we do a lot of small group activities where kids are getting to practice English and debriefing games and talking through what’s happening at practice and what they’re learning. There’s a formal side, but I think some of the best things come informally. Maybe it’s like, you’re from El Salvador and you just made friends with somebody who’s from somewhere else, and you have to speak English because that’s the only way you can talk.”

Many of the children in the program have also had extremely difficult experiences in their journey to the US. They have gone through often unimaginable struggles and this can cause lasting effects that need to be addressed.

“A lot of the kids have definitely experienced a pretty high degree of trauma,” said Gucciardi, “We have a lot of students who have fleen active conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq. We have a lot of kids who have come to the United States as unaccompanied minors, so kids who have crossed the southern border without parents or papers and a lot of them had a pretty hard journey. There’s a real benefit to these kids being able to have a space where they can play and do something that they love and that they’re good at, something where they can just really feel valued and supported.”

The organization understands that it can’t provide everything these children need and they are quick to work with outside resources. However, they do believe that the kinds of relationships developed through sport are valuable in dealing with the kinds of challenges faced by newcomers.

“It’s just having another group that’s looking out for them to plug them into other community resources as well,” said Gucciardi, “The role the coaches play, a lot of the times the coaches will be the first person to recognize someone who is having a hard time. It’s just having that adult that you can call when you’re not feeling good or having a hard time. I think that’s in some ways to me the best part of everything that we do. Those relationship where you have that trust and that connection and ultimately I think most things boil down to relationships.”

The organization, according to Gucciardi, is most effective as a partner to schools and much of the way they understand their impact is through the improved success the children in the program have scholastically.

“One of the things we’re really proud of is that, typically speaking, 95% of our kids have graduated from high school,” said Gucciardi, “Which means that out of a team of 20 you’re seeing 18 of those kids who will stay in school and graduate high school. I think a lot of that is attributed to regular participation in the program. It just provides a structure, it provides a mentor and somebody who is looking out for you. We monitor their grades, we understand what is going on with them and are just trying to understand how to support them best.”

This focus on education has led to a phenomenon Gucciardi is particularly proud of. Alumni from the programming are returning to help the next generation of kids.

“We’re starting to see that kind of pipeline of kids who were in the program and are out of college or currently in college and they’re starting to give back,” Gucciardi said, “and they can really relate to the kids in a different way having experienced it. So I’m really excited about that long term as a possibility of them kind of running the program more.”

Coupled with the positive feedback the organization is seeing in terms of mental health and language development, these academic results are a tribute to the effectiveness of the program. The organization has proven the impact soccer can have on children struggling to adjust to a new country.

Players Promise wants to take a stand for individuals from all socioeconomic backgrounds and say they are loved and important. "

As a program leveraging soccer to help reach refugees and immigrants, Soccer Without Borders is a perfect fit for the MLSPA’s Players Promise program. The PA has donated funds to the organization, but more importantly, they are working to connect professional players with Soccer Without Borders efforts on the ground.

“The goal of Players Promise is to connect players to underserved communities in their home markets through the beautiful game of soccer,” said Clarence Goodson, Player Relations Manager at the MLSPA, “Soccer is for all and our player pool is the most diverse in the world. Diversity is a beautiful thing and SWB is reaching students from dozens of countries and uniting them through the beautiful game. Players Promise wants to take a stand for individuals from all socioeconomic backgrounds and say they are loved and important. SWB has been doing just that for over 10 years now with great success.”

San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Tommy Thompson was the first active player to step up and get involved with Soccer Without Borders, specifically Ben Gucciardi’s program in Oakland. Thompson visited the group at Oakland International High School and spent the day practicing with the kids.

“I was blown away by the kids enthusiasm and the way they encouraged each other and how they worked together as a team to complete the tasks assigned to them,” said Thompson, “We didn’t just play soccer, we also did some team building exercises, and it was amazing to see the culture that Ben has established there. Nobody is criticizing anybody, they are all encouraging each other instead to continue to work hard and finish the task together.”

Thompson did some skill challenges with the young players and answered questions. He gave them insight into how he prepares for a season and how he gets into the right frame of mind to play. In the end, he was able to impact a group of young people at the beginning of the season by sharing what he knows best.

“Something that I told myself when I signed was that I wanted to use this platform to make the biggest impact I can on the field, but off the field as well,” said Thompson, “Organizations like Soccer Without Borders allow me to do that so that’s something I’m really grateful to be a part of and I’m looking forward to working with them in the future.”

Ben Gucciardi is looking forward to that as well. He sees the participation of players in the program as an extremely positive addition. “Having players there, it energizes the kids, it energizes the staff, it energizes the program,” he said.

The PA and its members, through Players Promise, are committed to supporting programs that use soccer to do good. It is an opportunity to give back and is a rewarding experience for all involved. Soccer Without Borders aligns perfectly with that mission.

“I think it’s amazing to see what type of impact a current player can have on young soccer players in the community,” said Thompson, “All of those kids are growing up playing soccer dreaming of being where you are. Especially as a current athlete, the impact that you can have just from showing up, the happiness it brings to the kids is special. That’s something that you will never be able to do again. So I definitely encourage anybody in Major League Soccer to use the platform they have to make a positive impact in the community because it’s always the strongest while you are still playing. You have 10-15 years, or however long you play, to use that platform to make an impact. I think that seeing the looks on the kids’ faces and seeing how happy they get when you just show up is one of the best parts of being a professional player.”

To learn more about Soccer Without Borders, you can visit their website and follow them on Twitter and Instagram

You can also follow Tommy Thompson on Twitter and Instagram

Photos via Amir Lowery