Soccer Without Borders is a non-profit organization that uses the sport of soccer as a vehicle for positive change. The program provides underserved youth with the tools and resources necessary to achieve success, seek inclusion, and overcome obstacles to personal growth.
In Granada, Nicaragua, Soccer Without Borders hosts a year-round program and soccer league for girls ages seven through twenty. They offer a week-long T.E.A.M Camp in January, which I attended as a volunteer coach, alongside others from the U.S and an inspiring, hardworking staff in Granada.
On Monday morning at 7:00AM, the first day of soccer camp, a tiny girl with sun-kissed hazel hair and deep, dark brown eyes, ran up to me hugged me. I was a little thrown off but I exclaimed a quick “¡Hola!” as she ran back to her friends, only turning around to smile and wave, silently promising that we’d meet again. I spent a week learning to cross language barriers through the sport of soccer, as well as sharing with others a desire to learn, to love, and to play.
The crunch of plantains and the warmth of freshly prepared rice lingered in my mind weeks later, as did the determination of young girls ready to change the world by doing what they love, and sharing their love with the group of strong, powerful, women. It was only a week, but it was part of an ongoing intention to make the world a better place.
Night one. The sun sets and it’s ninety degrees out. The water and electricity stop working for approximately twenty-four hours. Standing on the cold ground of over 3,000 miles away from home, we made mud from ice-cold water poured over our heads in an attempt to rinse off our sweat-soaked skin, and extracted layers of dirt with half a bar of Dove soap. We didn’t even know each other yet. But it took at least three to operate a bucket shower on a dirt patch in the backyard.
I never saw her, but at 5:55 every morning, a woman with a voice that sung the day into new beginnings, walked the streets selling homemade bread. Her voice wasn’t soft and gentle. It was loud, determined, powerful. She became my alarm clock for seven days, a constant that said “get up. The day is new, the sun is rising, and seventy young girls are waiting to greet you with a warm hug and a smile.” Seventy young girls who grew up surrounded by the sounds of a city that wakes up with the sun. A five year old with a fire in her eyes ignites in me a desire to always be kind, to be brave, and to cherish the moment we walk on the field hand in hand. She can’t stop talking because she’s filled with the adrenaline of learning something new. She wants to be a soccer player, just like you.
On a dust-covered field in the shadows of a volcano towering in the background, I laced up my cleats, grabbed a ball, and became a teacher. In soccer shorts and an already sweaty t-shirt, I stood in front of wide-eyed girls, searching for the words to say “I’m here. I’m here to learn from you, to experience the world with you. To change the world with you.” Soccer is soccer on grass. It’s soccer on turf. It’s soccer on pavement. It’s soccer in the dirt, and in the dust. It’s a universal language when finding the words isn’t easy.
Your first touch on the ball in a soccer game is extremely important. It determines what you can do next. A good first touch leaves a player with endless possibilities to dribble, pass, and shoot the ball. There is also power in human touch, power so fundamental we forget to notice it sometimes. That’s why people hold hands, shake hands, high five their teammates. It reminds us of what we can do next. That we’re not alone. Of all the possibilities we have.
On a hot day with a slight breeze, I sat on the balcony that juts out on the third floor of Tres Pisos. The floor was hard, but cold; a perfect contrast to the scorching, all-encompassing sunshine. I was comfortable and tired enough to sleep, and the world began to drift in and out through heavy eyelids. This is one of the only three story buildings in Granada. You can see all the way down the street, and look down onto the tops of all the houses in the distance. You’re not very high up, but in a way it feels a little bit like you’re on top of the world.
To get to the field, I walk straight from Tres Pisos, past the curious man in the store window who sells cold blue gatorade, and then take a right at the corner. If you walk across the grass it cuts the distance. Two girls walk in front of me, straining under the weight of a bag of soccer balls that they chose to hoist over their heads for the walk. An alleyway where mangy stray dogs make homes in the shade of discarded boxes disappears to our right, and the chapel greets us face-to-face with the ringing of bells that mark 7:00AM. Along the cracked sidewalk and through the rusted fence, the soccer fields lie right behind the washed-up baseball stadium. The walk was long enough for quick Spanish lessons, for eye spy games, and for getting to know each other just a little bit more every day. I think if I went back years from now, I would still remember the walk.
Home has a smell. It smells like comfort and safety, softness and warmth. I woke up in my bed seven days later with the smell of home pouring through the gaps of uncomfort in my sleep-filled body. With memories of people and places that felt almost dreamlike, I wasn’t sure how to take it all in. It seemed too vast to compress into a one-week memory. I couldn’t help but feel like there was more to be done. More to teach, more to learn, more to be afraid of, more to love. But there always is, there always will be.
On our last day there, someone asked if it was confusing to the girls to have a group of leaders and mentors come for just a week, and then leave. It is a good point, and I continually think about it. Are we setting these girls up to believe that people are temporary? That they’ll come and go in the blink of an eye? To be honest, I haven’t come to a conclusion. People do come and go. For different reasons, at different times. But people stay, too. I can picture the girls on the dust fields in Nicaragua warming up for a big game, and I bet they still think about us, too.
Photos by Author
I am a student at Smith College in Northampton, MA. I love adventure, sports, and a good book.