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Soccer 4 Change provides a safe haven for vulnerable teens

The happy chatter, mostly in Spanish, and the brightly-colored shirts mask the turmoil reeling within the 300 high school students who participate in Soccer 4 Change, Montgomery County Department of Recreation’s program for vulnerable young people.

The participants, who are touched by a world of drugs and violence, are learning “the value of teamwork, the value of working together and the value of setting goals,” said County Recreation Director Gabe Albornoz. “We are seeing kids that are engaged, coming out of their shells.”

In its second year, Soccer 4 Change covers all the costs so these students can play on one of the 10 boys’ or four girls’ soccer teams, regardless of their athletic abilities.
The program is concentrated in the northern and eastern parts of the County. The students attend Clarksburg, Gaithersburg, John F. Kennedy, Montgomery Blair, Northwood, Seneca Valley, Springbrook, Watkins Mill and Wheaton high schools.

They practice twice a week after school and play games on Friday afternoons. Special clinics are held and game referees strive to teach soccer skills.

The goal, according to Albornoz, is to make sure any student who wants to play, can. Their team shirts, soccer balls and protective gear are provided at no cost, thanks to the program’s partners, including Identity, the City of Gaithersburg and Street Outreach.

They aren’t provided with cleats, however, and many of the teenagers play the game in sneakers.

A bus picks them up at their high school and takes them right to the field. Providing transportation is “critical,” Albornoz said, “That’s a huge barrier” to some students who want to join teams.

There are several reasons why these students don’t join their high school or town team. Some don’t want to play on a team where the coach doesn’t speak their language, explained Sara Swarr, recreation specialist with the County.

Others have family and job responsibilities and can’t commit to a daily schedule. Some teenagers have no way to get to and from games or money to join a club team; some aren’t good enough to make a soccer team where the same kids have played together since they were young. There also are some students who don’t have the confidence to try out for a team.

Those asked to participate are either recommended by their schools or their parents, who fear their child is being recruited for a gang, Swarr said.

Jonathan Gomez, an 18-year-old Montgomery Blair High School, enjoys playing on a team and is proud to wear his orange team shirt. Besides playing, he helps organize his team, sending texts to make sure everyone knows where and when to practice.

He mostly likes playing with his friends and doesn’t have time to commit to daily practices, said the El Salvadoran native. “It’s free,” and lets him enjoy himself rather than “going around doing bad things,” he said with some language help from his coach, Daniel Barros, who works for the County recreation department.

The team “is all about building relationships,” Barros said. “These guys are good. They go to school and always want to help out.”

Coach Bertran Bruno, who works for the City of Gaithersburg, said that at the same time he is showing his players how to be better athletes, he also is teaching them “how you treat people, respect, accountability” and how to trust teammates.

Students participating in the program are required to do a community service project, which usually takes place in their own schools. Players on the Watkins Mill team go over to Whetstone Elementary School and walk the young students home, protecting them in what Swarr called “a hot zone.”

Soccer 4 Change is “not a regular soccer game. We are here for a bigger purpose,” she said.

“This is a successful program,” said Albornoz. “These kids are improving their soccer skills on the field in a safe space, and they are learning what it is like to be part of a team. We are also seeing more parental involvement at the games. That’s a win-win.” 

@SuzannePollak

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