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Unidos Podemos! (United We Can!)

The first morning in Senda de Vida 1, as the coach candidates began setting up cones and preparing the space for soccer skills practice, a few iACT team members walked around the shelter to talk to parents about the new soccer academy. Pastor Lilly, our new Academy Coordinator in Reynosa, answered questions in Spanish and Sara-Christine in French. A group of moms from Haiti stood in a circle around Sara-Christine in disbelief, “Are you serious?” they asked. “This is really happening?” Their excitement was palpable. They couldn’t believe there would be a safe, playful, maybe even healing sports program for their children.

Two young boys join in a circle with the soccer coaches to practice passing drills.
Two young boys join the coaches for drills. (Note: we won't be showing the faces of children in Reynosa for their safety.)

iACT left no doubt about coming back to Reynosa to launch its first Refugees United Soccer Academy (RUSA) in Latin America after a “listening and learning” trip in January. Sara-Christine was clear about the commitment to act, “...having been there, witnessing the experience of people–hearing the stories of why they left their homes, their journey to get to the border, AND their experience at the border waiting–there is no question why iACT will show up and support.”


The situation for migrants staying at Senda is heart wrenching, mainly because they don’t know if and when, after all they’ve endured, they will be allowed to legally cross the border. Many adults spend their days trying to deal with the online-by-smart-phone-only app that is now required to complete the US Immigration application (CBP One). For the children, there’s very little space to play. The shelter is only for families, and is supported by several international NGOs as well as local organizations, including The Sidewalk School, a key iACT partner in establishing this RUSA. Even so, launching an Academy in Mexico meant iACT would need to be flexible, adapting to situations throughout the training, hiring, and establishing of this program.


The four coaches stand in Senda 1 holding soccer balls, with tents behind them.
Our new coaches on the first morning of training. More great candidates joined throughout the week, but these four participated in all three days. From left to right: Kayleen, Israel, Abraham, and Itzel.

A key aspect of iACT culture is seeing obstacles as opportunities, and staying flexible in our processes. Adapting our soccer program to a new context definitely gave us the opportunity to put this to practice. RUSA coach recruiting usually attracts about 25 hopefuls, but this time we had only four, two men and two women, on our first day. That is the total number we had hoped to hire. So we adapted some of the standard iACT coach training process and created warmups, skill drills, and games using the four candidates plus Sara-Christine and me.


We expected to be able to train on a small, fenced-in, artificial turf field in the middle of the shelter, but by the time iACT returned to Reynosa most of that space was covered with migrants’ tents. Again we adapted, and found a 30 x 60 foot smooth concrete surface.


Children and their parents lined up to watch as coach hopefuls practice skills drills.
A crowd gathered to watch our coaching hopefuls on the first day of training.

Each morning, as soon as we opened the equipment duffels and broke out the brightly colored soccer balls the kids came from all directions to watch, some offering to help. Our hearts were warmed by the many smiling faces we saw as we went through our drills. Youngsters eagerly joined in, some even mimicking our mindfulness deep breathing exercises. We could feel they knew something exciting and special was happening.

In the afternoons, the coaching candidates were indoors going through key elements of the Academy training process:


Trauma-Informed Care - what is trauma and why so many of the children in this shelter have trauma-related issues. Coaches need to be able to recognize it and learn how to support the children who have experienced it.

Philosophies: To help ensure the Academy is rooted in equality, respect, and a united passion for the game of soccer: Peace, Helping and Sharing.

Coach Responsibilities: The daily responsibilities for every Academy coach are:

  • First and foremost, ensuring that all of the children are, at all times, Safe from physical as well as verbal violence, respected and respectful with others.

  • Second, ensuring the Academy is a place for children to Have Fun, to play, learn, and heal.

  • And third, ensuring the Academy experience helps children Learn. If coaches create a safe, fun environment, then learning will begin to happen on its own.


A pile of pink sandals sits next to an orange soccer cone with children lined up in the distance waiting for a relay race to start.
A pile of sandals discarded as children prepare for dribbling relay races.

The excitement we had been sensing peaked on the final day of training as we watched the coach candidates work with the kids on their own – 60 excited youngsters ranging in age from about 5 to 13 years old, divided into four groups. All four original trainees have been hired and the Academy officially opened in early April. By week two, almost 50 Senda kids were coming out every day to play, learn and hopefully begin to heal, with numbers growing each day.

Great things can happen when people work together, are flexible and willing to adapt.


For now, Senda management has relocated about 60 tents and given the small turf field to the Academy kids. The National Women’s Soccer League’s Angel City FC is partnering with iACT and providing the funding for the launch of this program.The coaches and Pastor Lilly are arranging meetings with parents in the shelter to explain the program and ask for their input as, with all RUSA Academies, this will be a community-led endeavor. iACT will make some adjustments to that model as Reynosa is a community of migrants and asylum seekers on-the-move .


Later this year iACT hopes to open a second Academy in Mexico, an hour southeast of Reynosa in Matamoros, where an even larger number of migrants on-the-move are sleeping outdoors in tents and under tarps, waiting to cross legally into the US. This Academy will also be done in partnership with The Sidewalk School.


UNIDOS PODEMOS!


Group photo of all our coach candidates, everyone is making silly faces.
Our awesome crew of coach candidates in Reynosa. Everyone was amazing! (Front: Jaime, Abraham, Israel. Back: Luz, Sara-Christine, Pastor Lilly, David, Liz, Itzel, Kayleen)


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