Program changed my perception

Soccer Without Borders coaches (left to right) Helen Ramirez, Veronica Balladares and Cesar Morales. Courtesy of Soccer Without Borders

As the daughter, granddaughter, niece and cousin of Nicaraguans, yet born and raised in the United States, my perception of the country had always been through what I would describe now as rose-colored glasses. Family trips to Nicaragua were typical: weekends at the beach, pickup soccer games in the yard and nightly movie marathons at my grandmother's house. There may have been a little more trash in the gutters, a few more children in the streets during school hours, a few more soccer balls made out of trash or T-shirts -- all signs of a life different from mine -- but somehow those pieces did not add up in my head. My Nicaraguan cousins were kids having fun, just like me. It wasn't until I had the opportunity to return as an adult that both my eyes and my heart began to put those pieces back together. Kids played soccer with balls made from whatever they could find because real ones were an expensive luxury. Children were out of school because they were working to help support their families. Traveling to Granada, Nicaragua with Soccer Without Borders in May 2010 had started out as an opportunity to combine my passions for soccer and for helping others; I hadn't planned on it changing the way I lived my life and flipping my perceptions upside-down.

The 1999 Women's World Cup was in full swing when I was in the second grade, and Brandi, Mia and Michelle were plastered on every media outlet there was, "anything you can do, I can do better" ringing through my ears. Thanks to Title IX and those who embraced it, I now realize how lucky we were to not only have the opportunity to play the sports we loved, but to feel empowered to do so as well. We didn't have to fight the boys to let us play pickup soccer with them at recess, and we didn't have to beg our fathers to let us play on the local soccer team. We had leagues a plenty to play in, and dreams of using the game we loved to help pay for our educations because that was an actual possibility, a reality fought for by women who came before.

To go from a country with unbridled opportunity to one with a very different reality is humbling. It's a lesson in being thankful for what you have, while also putting fuel into a fire that you may have not even realize was aching to be lit. My first experience with Soccer Without Borders (SWB) in 2010 was like putting on glasses for the first time. The goal of the program is a simple, yet multilayered one: to use soccer as a vehicle for positive change in the lives of young girls in Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. SWB provides a safe and encouraging environment to not only learn and practice soccer skills, but life skills as well: responsibility, teamwork, patience, problem solving, pride, commitment. As members of the program, the girls are the stars of the show- there's no one telling them they can't, no one telling them they aren't good enough, and no one questioning why they are there in the first place.

That same year, while still a player at Auburn University, I became a member of the Nicaraguan Women's National Team. Fresh from the airport, the support and compassion of the girls was overwhelming. In the moments where my Spanish failed me, they were quick with a kind word or an understanding pat on the shoulder; it was in those moments that I have never been more proud to be a Nicaraguan. They didn't ask for sympathy or make excuses for the difficulties they faced. They did what was necessary to make it to practice in the 100-degree heat, each and every day, with a smile on their face and nothing but joy and pride to be able to play the game they loved and represent their country.

What struck me was that these girls had gotten to where they were -- representing their country on the national team -- with very few of the resources I had taken for granted through my soccer life. Well-kept fields on which to play, nationally trained and capable coaches to learn from, competitive leagues to build skills, and a university system that gave me an opportunity to use soccer as a means to get an affordable education while playing against the best in the country. I was literally in awe of my teammates' inner strengths every day, as we trained under the hot sun with a goal of making our country proud in competition.

As we traveled to the Central American Games in San Jose, Costa Rica this past spring, I experienced firsthand the discrepancy between the men's and women's programs. When we arrived in San Jose to our hotels, our first stop was at a four-star downtown hotel. As both squads unloaded their bags to get situated, the women's team was instructed to re-board the bus to head to our hotel, a perfectly comfortable place but an obvious slight by comparison. In spite of the disparity, it was us, the women, who brought home a silver medal. We had broken the centuries-old belief that the men were the only ones capable of putting Nicaragua on a national stage.

Last week, I found myself back with SWB, this time in New England for the second phase of the Inter-American Women's Soccer Exchange between the U.S. and Nicaragua. Sponsored by the SportsUnited Division of the U.S. Department of State, this exchange provides an intensive opportunity for 10 leaders from girls' and women's soccer initiatives in Nicaragua to share dreams and ideas with each other, finding common ground. During their 12 days in the U.S. they have learned from and observed many different levels of American culture and sports infrastructure, from the Boston Breakers professional team, to Dartmouth College's youth-day camps, to SWB Boston's Saturday morning practices. Collectively, they have articulated a vision for the future of Nicaraguan girls' and women's soccer. Individually, they have each been given an opportunity to plan and execute their very own action plan, taking the very first steps towards that collective goal.

There have been times in our group meetings where my heart has felt so full of pride for the passion contained in those tiny rooms. I feel pride not only for these future leaders of the Nicaraguan soccer movement, but the members of SWB who have dedicated weeks, months, and years to make it possible. I have seen fire in the eyes of each person as they talk about their program, or their team, or their students, or their teammates, and I can't help but be certain that they are the future. I think this exchange has truly represented what can happen when a small group of thoughtful and very much committed individuals come together to make a change.