Nicaraguan girls enriched via soccer

Somewhere in the barrios of Granada, Nicaragua, a city in one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, there is a young girl waiting for an opportunity. She is bright and outgoing, a fire waiting to be lit in a place where hope too often lies cold and dormant.

Somewhere in Granada there are future Zoe Bouchelles and Myra Sacks.

And if soccer isn't a solution to all that stands in the way of their realizing that potential, it can at least offer some of the supplies necessary for the long journey ahead.

"I've been playing sports my whole life and all throughout college, but I don't think in the moment you realize how much it's helping you or how much it's helping you develop as a person," Bouchelle said. "When I graduated and looked back on it, I thought, 'I gained so much.' I had the opportunity to travel, the opportunity to make friends -- most of my friends are people I grew up playing sports with -- just to have that sense of self-esteem, confidence, that you're going out every day and you're getting better at something."

One year removed from the end of their college careers, Bouchelle and former Penn State teammate Kaleen Adami leave this week as the first long-term interns for Soccer Without Borders in Granada. For the next eight months, they will live with local families and continue the work of the volunteer student-athletes and coaches who preceded them for shorter stints over the past year and a half, including Sack and two of her Dartmouth teammates.

Founded by former Lehigh men's soccer player Ben Gucciardi, Soccer Without Borders, in its own words, attempts to "use soccer as a vehicle for positive change in the lives of marginalized youth." The organization operates year-round programs in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Uganda and domestically in Oakland, Calif., and New York, working in many of those places with refugees who might otherwise be isolated and adrift in unfamiliar cultures.

But in Granada -- the organization's only project devoted exclusively to girls -- the outsiders at risk are not recent arrivals. As in much of Latin America and the developing world, soccer remains almost entirely the province of males in Nicaragua, leaving girls without even that one tool of socialization in a place where formal education can be sporadic for both genders.

"Sport is such an empowering thing," Granada program director Mary McVeigh explained. "And I think team sports, in particular, for women are really powerful because women tend to derive their confidence when they are amongst their peers, or from their peers."

An All-American at Dartmouth, where she is now an assistant coach in addition to her role with Soccer Without Borders, McVeigh began her coaching career at Lehigh five years ago, where she first learned of Gucciardi's nascent organization. It's also where she coached Daniela Molina, a native of Colombia. And it was while on a trip to South America in 2006, in part to see Molina play for Colombia in qualifying matches for the following year's World Cup, that she saw firsthand how much of an afterthought women's soccer was in otherwise soccer-mad cultures.

Sport is such an empowering thing. And I think team sports, in particular, for women are really powerful because women tend to derive their confidence when they are amongst their peers, or from their peers.

-- Granada's Soccer Without Borders program director Mary McVeigh

"Even at the highest level, women's soccer is just not respected," McVeigh said. "They don't have the best coaches; they barely can afford to travel. And these are their full national teams that don't even have the resources they need. So it just got me thinking about the state of women's soccer in the Western Hemisphere everywhere but the United States, and probably Canada as well."

Soccer Without Borders had already established a fledgling part-time presence in Granada by that point, making it an opportune place for McVeigh to get involved. As was the case in the United States before Title IX, perhaps the most fundamental question to answer was whether the lack of opportunities for girls in soccer was, as many in the area suggested, the effect of their lack of interest in such things or the very cause of that supposed lack of interest.

What quickly became apparent when McVeigh and Penn State assistant coach Ann Cook traveled there in early 2008 was that there was no foundation in place to encourage whatever interest did exist. As McVeigh recalled, out of about 50 girls in one early soccer session, only one group of four could name even a single female athlete. But when introduced to living, kicking examples that showed it was all right for women to play, surprise soon transformed into interest.

Despite any initial indifference or skepticism, the local populace proved largely receptive to the newcomers -- it didn't hurt that McVeigh, a first-round pick in the WUSA's final draft, and others more than held their own on the field against local men. But the program took a significant step forward early this year when Sack, Ali Hubbard and Becky Poskin received a grant from Dartmouth to spend their three-month winter term in Granada, the longest continuous volunteer presence prior to Bouchelle and Adami's arrival. In addition to trips to local schools to stage clinics and draw new players for the weekly practices, Sack, Hubbard and Poskin expanded the program's reach with off-field activities four nights a week in newly rented office space in town.

"I think that's where we saw the biggest differences between how we grew up here and how the girls grow up in Granada, where they're really not -- they don't think that their voice matters and they don't want to speak," Sack said. "Whereas, obviously, as you can tell, the three of us will jump at any time we get a chance to talk. So I think by the end, the coolest thing to see was that evolution and see girls wanting to stand in the circle and say things and talk about their communities and talk about their families and try to take a step forward."

On an individual level, no person better represented that step forward more than Yelba Sirias. An orphan taken in by a family of 15 living in cramped quarters, Sirias was one of the few girls in the community who had played soccer with the boys from an early age -- she was far and away the most talented player on the field when McVeigh first encountered her at age 15. Sirias' family wouldn't let the teenager travel alone to the practices or games; the entirety of her soccer training came from the area's pickup games. So program volunteers would ride buses to pick her up and then take her back home, all on the condition that she also attend school regularly.

Playing on the team sponsored by Soccer Without Borders in the country's new, somewhat haphazard women's league, earned Sirias an invitation from Nicaragua's Under-20 national team -- she recently applied for her first passport to travel with the team to a tournament in Guatemala. Even college is now a potential option for her in a country where higher education is anything but the norm for people on the lower economic rungs and where, according to the CIA Factbook, one out of every three people aged 15 or older was illiterate in 2003.

Words like "empower" can lose meaning as they are adopted and overused by movements. But Sack, who grew particularly close to a girl just a few years her junior, learned that the goal in Granada isn't about rescuing or saving girls. The only hope of progress is empowering them.

"I think through Yelba I learned that it wasn't really about going down there and trying to change their entire lives," Sack said. "Because initially all I wanted to do was adopt her and bring her back to the States and get her out of there. And I actually think I made some plans to try to do that. But I guess by the end, I realized she loved it there and all she needs to know is how important she is for her community and how much she can do for her family and for all the people that look to her in her very small community in Granada."

Not every girl who comes to a practice or a clinic will have the talent or the good fortune to follow in Sirias' footsteps. For that matter, many of the girls who participate in the activities Bouchelle and Adami organize in the coming months will still fade into the margins of society. The realities of poverty are too daunting, the obstacles too numerous, for any program to lift up everyone. But whether it's the tangible weight of a passport or the intangible power that comes from having the self-confidence to speak up and stand out, soccer offers something unique.

It offers hope. Hope that Bouchelle witnessed during a short stay in Granada last spring. And it's why she's put off looking for a job with a paycheck to return to Nicaragua and build on what those before her started.

In her own words, "Our thinking is, the same as how it was for women in the U.S. -- it's like if one generation can sort of get their foot in the door and they grow up having that opportunity, then maybe when they have girls, they'll think it's not such a big deal."

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.