Once-Reluctant Volunteer Mónica González Helps Kids On Global Scale
Mónica González is sitting on a bus heading to Cuautla, Mexico, a town of about 150,000 people some 60 miles south of Mexico City. She is asked a simple question. "What is Gonzo Soccer?"
She pauses and then says, "It's this beast that has taken over my life."
Indeed it has. Gonzo Soccer is an academy program that teaches soccer, life and leadership skills to over 900 girls worldwide. There are five academies in Colombia, seven in Mexico and four in the United States. Not bad for someone who insists she isn't the kind of person to volunteer.
"I remember being asked to do volunteer stuff in high school, and I was like, 'No thank you,'" says González, who was honored as part of the 2014 Toyota Everyday Heroes for her efforts.
The idea for the academy first took hold in 2009, though it was slow to germinate. As González puts it, "It started by accident. I didn't mean to do it, never set out to do it."
An All-American soccer player while at the University of Notre Dame, González played on the first Mexico women's national team, and in a bid to continue her career, she moved to Chicago in 2009 to try out for the Chicago Red Stars. González failed to make the cut but did latch on with Red 11, the club's reserve team. That still left her with the challenge of finding an alternate source of income. González took to coaching the Chicago Fire Juniors, and then with the help of some Red Stars staff members, she agreed to conduct a clinic in Chicago's lower west side. Sixty-five girls showed up, but she thought that was the end of it.
Then the owner of the indoor facility where the clinic had taken place called González and told her that the mothers of the girls who participated had asked when she was coming back. The owner even agreed to give her use of the space for free. So once a week González would head into the city to hold sessions.
It was then that González realized the demands of what the girls needed went well beyond soccer, that they were dealing with "rough stuff" as she put it. Some were being recruited by gangs. Others had family members who were having problems with their immigration status. So, in addition to practice time, González held talks about what was going on in the girls' lives. She also held sessions about nutrition that the girls' parents attended.
All I wanted to do is give them a little bit of healing, give them a little bit of inspiration. Show them things that aren't in their bubble that will make them curious about what's in the world.Mónica González on how Gonzo Soccer got started
"All I wanted to do is give them a little bit of healing, give them a little bit of inspiration," she says. "Show them things that aren't in their bubble that will make them curious about what's in the world or spark some kind of an interest."
One of the first participants to take part in González's clinics was a young girl who was being tempted to join a gang in her neighborhood, but thanks to González's help, the girl became captain of her school soccer team and is now headed to college on a scholarship.
"Things like that, that's cool stuff," González said.
Since then, González has done television work with ESPN and Fox Sports, but with that work mostly taking place on weekends, she has time during the week to devote to the expansion of her academy. And she has encountered some unexpected allies along the way. The U.S. Department of State named González a Sports Envoy, allowing Gonzo Soccer to obtain government grants under the heading of "global peace and security." It seems a curious heading for González's efforts to fall under, but the Texas native feels the label fits.
"That's why I'm still doing this, because over time I realized that the work I'm doing does have to do with that," she says. "I may not be able to have world peace, but my work is potentially turning a light on in that girl and having her go out and turning on any lights in her family and her community of people that just need to be conscious of what's going on in the world and what's going on in their community; realizing that they can be agents of change, internally, externally."
There are numerous challenges as well. González admits that Gonzo Soccer isn't self-sustaining at the moment, and once a grant is obtained, there's the challenge of turning around and getting more.
"You can't really work on a surplus," she says.
Then there are the cultural challenges. In some households, soccer is still viewed as a sport purely for boys. González tells stories of mothers sneaking their daughters to the sessions in order to prevent the girl's father from finding out. And while it's easy to think of this as something that only happens in places such as Colombia and Mexico, González says it happens in plenty of U.S. families as well.
"It's just not accepted, the girls are doing something prohibited," González says. "These girls are being made to feel bad even though they're doing something that's good for them. They're made to feel that they'll become masculine or lesbians because they like to play soccer.
"That's one of the biggest barriers. All we have to do is just be the example."
But González is prepared to go anywhere it takes to spread her message, no matter how poor the area. Following her visit to Cuautla, she's going to head to Cuernavaca. One chapter of her academy is located on the Colombian island of San Andrés, which is actually closer to Nicaragua.
"For me, I consider it an education thing," she says. "I think soccer is the hook, and soccer is what keeps them showing up every day. As long as my coaches train them well, they'll keep coming back. But the real work we do is sitting down with the girls and giving talks and lessons that they learn with their coaches. The pressure on them is doing well in school. That's what it's all about."
And it also shows that an accidental volunteer can do a world of good.