Inner city soccer and girls in white lace

As wealthy as Canada is, not every Canadian child is able to play sports or join an activity program. Many kids can’t participate in hockey, soccer, baseball, dance, and tennis simply because their parents can’t afford it.

As a community soccer coach, I’ve never been comfortable with this. Which is why it felt good when, a couple of years ago, I had the chance to make a dent in the problem locally.

Starting in 2007, my friend Darryl Hooker and I put together an “inner-city” soccer program in Victoria to help local low-income kids get a chance to play. It followed a 2006 decision from the board of directors at our Bays United soccer club started to take a serious look at the sparse player registrations from a couple of low-income neighborhoods in our club catchment.

We put together a proposal and applied for funding from the Bell Community Sport Fund at True Sport, and when the money came through, we created a soccer program for approximately 250 kids at two inner city elementary schools.

While Darryl designed a basic coaching curriculum, I hired six soccer players from the University of Victoria to coach the program and worked with the school principals to refine the plan so it would fit each school.

That spring, we ran a free program where we came into the schools two days each week over two months and coached soccer skills and game play for kids in Grades 1-5 during their physical education classes and lunch recesses. We arrived each day with soccer balls for every child and taught them fundamental skills in dribbling, passing, and shooting before breaking into small games.

The experience was magical and the kids loved it. None of them had soccer shoes, and most often they didn’t even have appropriate clothing, but the soccer sessions became the highlight of the week for many of them.

There was one little girl in Grade 2 who played with great gusto in her white lace dress and black patent leather shoes with gold buckles. Then there was another girl who reportedly collapsed in tears at home one morning when her mother told her she was too sick to go to school that day. She pleaded with her mother, “But mom! Today is soccer day!”

The teachers at both schools also loved the program. As one of our young coaches observed, we seemed to be meeting a need that these schools weren’t able to address.

“The teachers are all in support of the active kids and active health concept,” said Sam Wingham, who has since become a school teacher. “I get the feeling the funding and the time is just not available.”

In the end, the program was so successful that B.C. Soccer approached us and asked if they could take it over. They had been working on a similar concept in Vancouver and they were interested in rolling out their program in a number of cities and towns across the province. We were happy to let them take the reins and help them to create a provincial-scale program.

Altogether, the soccer outreach program was a huge success. It reached a lot of kids who would not have been able to play the sport otherwise. As well, a number of the students have subsequently found their way into our club soccer programs through the help of registration bursaries from our club and KidSport.

There is plenty of need for improved access to sport and physical activity in Canada. Given the serious problems associated with youth inactivity, and the tremendous benefits associated with regular physical activity, improved access for all Canadians is a cause worth fighting for.

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