Monday, July 7, 2008

5 Questions With Street Soccer Coaches

A few months ago I interviewed Kat Byles of the Homeless World Cup organization. This event takes place annually and is a competition consisting of teams from all over the world. The United States is represented by a team made up of individuals that are chosen from other teams originating from around the country. One such group is from Michigan and led by Sara Silvennoinen and Linda Bacigalupi. They were both able to take a few minutes out of their very busy schedules to answer five questions:

1. How did you get involved with coaching for the Homeless World Cup? Had you coached before? What is your experience with soccer?

Sara: I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and have been playing soccer for as long as I can remember. I then went to Heidelberg College to play soccer. I have a bachelor’s in Mental Health Psychology from Heidelberg and my masters in counseling from Spring Arbor University. I have been working for Washtenaw County PORT, which does outreach to people who are homeless and have a mental illness, since 2005.

Last summer I was going on a trip to Finland and before I went on the trip I was talking with my boss, John, about homelessness in Finland. Because of our conversation I went online to look up information on homelessness and the first website that came up was the Homeless World Cup. Of course, this made me interested and I had to see what it was about. I emailed the link to my supervisor (Deb) and she said, “well start up a team”. That was all that was needed for me. I contacted Lawrence and Rob from North Carolina (U.S. team organizers) and they said they were having a conference on getting the teams started. I flew to the conference and shortly afterwards we started the team.

I have not had a lot of experience in coaching. When I was in high school I helped coach a neighbor’s team for a couple of seasons and then I coached soccer for a tournament called the Arborough games.

I have been playing soccer pretty much as long as I can remember and played in college. Today I continue to play. Right now I am on three different leagues that play four nights a week.

Linda: I was “recruited” by Sara Silvennoinen, our office sports fanatic. We both work under the umbrella of the Washtenaw County (Michigan) Community Mental Health Agency in a separate specialized program called PORT (Project Outreach Team) that is committed to providing outreach, case management, and psychiatric services to the homeless who are mentally ill and unconnected with any services. I am part of a newer sub-team of PORT called JPORT that is slated to serve mentally ill adults who are involved in the criminal justice system and unconnected with services; the goal is to divert those individuals who would benefit from treatment from jail to a treatment program.

Not too long after I had been hired at PORT, Sara, armed with the knowledge that I had played soccer years ago asked me to assist with the team, which I was happy to do. She later also talked me into playing on a co-ed community team and I have been playing ever since. I had played soccer from about 3rd grade through high school. Years went by (I’d rather not say how many) and though I missed the game, there was just not an opportunity for me to get back into it. Until I started playing again I had forgotten how much joy I get from soccer. And now, I also have the honor of enjoying the rewards of coaching, which is a completely new experience for me.

We are fortunate enough to have a very supportive Program Administrator, Deb Pippins, and Supervisor, John Loring, without whom we would not have been able to devote the time, energy, and resources to the team necessary to keep the project afloat.

2. How do you recruit your team? Do most have experience playing? What is the biggest challenge in finding team members?

Sara: Through our job we do outreach to people who are living on the streets. They have always heard me talking about soccer so this was a good way to have them come and play. We also put up posters in the shelter and telling the people we worked with. Now people know when and where the soccer practices are and they show up.

We have a good mix of people who have played, people who have never played, or have played when they were younger. My warning to everyone who comes out is that they will have a good time, so far my warnings have been right.

The hardest part has been consistency. We have a lot of people who would like to continue playing but can’t because a job is during practice or other situations in there live that make it hard for them to come out to soccer.

Linda: We just put up flyers at the local shelter. Some other players started participating when they saw us practicing at West Park (a community park). Others learned of the team by word-of-mouth from other players. Anyone and everyone have been encouraged to participate in the practices (even if they did not meet the “homeless” criteria). We were able to scrape up enough funding to sign up for a men’s league indoor soccer session early this spring, and all of the regular participants at practice were invited to play on the team.

As the U.S. Cup has been getting closer, we met individually with each interested (and qualified, i.e., homeless within the last year) player to develop a personal Action Plan. Each player made a commitment to work toward the goals on his/her Action Plan. We also developed a list of criteria with our Supervisor and Program Administrator. The four of us then reviewed each player’s progress towards individual Action Plan goals, and how well each player fell within the criteria parameters, and invited eight players to participate in the traveling team.

3. What is the biggest challenge about coaching for the event? Do you practice year-round? What is the training schedule like?

Sara: The biggest challenge with coaching would be the skill levels that everyone has. There might be practices with people who are very skillful and having one person who has never played before. Or having practices full of people have never played before with a couple of skilled players. This makes it difficult in making the practices challenging for the skillful players but trying to teach the players who have never played before.

We are very lucky to be able to practice year-round. We practice at a park near our shelter in the summer but in the winter Wide World Sports Center allows us to practice on there fields. This has been very helpful because without them we would not be able to practice in the winter. It is also exciting for the guys because they get to play on a real field.

Linda: We have been practicing every Thursday since late August 2007. During the warmer months we have been practicing at an outdoor park and using both a softball field and a concrete basketball court, so that the players could get accustomed to playing on a hard, flat surface similar to the one they will be playing on in D.C. During late fall and winter months a local indoor soccer arena, Wide World, very generously donated an hour each Thursday for our team to practice. The biggest challenge for me is making sure I don’t forget about all the other aspects of my job and get too preoccupied with the soccer team. After all, who wouldn’t be tempted to devote more time to playing soccer than writing progress notes (not that I don’t LOVE my job as a whole!)?

4. How do you fund the team's expenses and travel? What are the challenges there?

Sara: Detroit Ignition was very helpful with holding a game, and if people bought tickets from us we got part of the ticket sales. Part of our yearly budget we put a small amount away for the team. We also have had people donate money to our team. So, through this we are able to travel to Washington D.C.

The challenges have been finding different places to help. We have had a number of places say they are willing to help but then the last minute something happens and they are unable to follow through with their agreement. These have been needed donations and at the last minute we had to scramble to find other resources.

Linda: In the fall of 2007, the Detroit professional indoor soccer team, the Ignition, and their partners the Hantz Group donated one ticket for an SSPORT player to attend an Ignition game with each ticket sold. We invited the public to buy tickets so that our players could attend. Other people elected to make monetary contributions to the team. There is a small portion of the program’s budget that is slated for the team as well. The Ignition/Hantz Group also generously donated tickets to 2 additional games later in the season. The SSPORT players had a blast at each game, watching the professional players closely so that they might learn some new skills to bring to the field and getting their pictures taken with lovely members of the Ignition Dance Team. We welcome anyone to check out our website and click on “street soccer” for more information on the team and how to contribute donations.

5. What are some success stories you've witnessed? How does participation change people's lives?

Linda and Sara sent me two awesome stories about individuals that they have been involved with and have made incredible gains from the street soccer program. Since this post is a bit long already…tune in tomorrow for the answers to question five.


And One said...

Incredible post. In so many ways. Ethan Jaynes just started a site he calls Sports Blog Bucks. I posted this piece over there. --C

Apryl DeLancey said...

Awesome! Thanks for spreading the word.

Lindsay said...

Very interesting. I think this is a great way to help homeless people get back on their feet. Sometimes all it takes if feeling important and having something to belong to. Plus, doesn't everyone loves sports?

Apryl DeLancey said...

I'm always amazed at the power of sports!