Sunday, July 21, 2013

Soccer Without Borders, UNC football players help refugees feel right at home

Jul 21, 2013 
(Menafn - Greeley Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) 

Hser Tha Ku is a quiet, introverted 13-year-old girl that is learning to adjust to a new country and a new way of life. Life hasn't been easy for Hser Tha and her family, who escaped persecution in Burma and ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand before coming to Greeley. However, when she is on a soccer field, her joy playing the game speaks volumes and it is clear by the smile on her face that she feels right at home.

 Hser Tha is one of 25 children from refugee families in the area that are participating in the Greeley Soccer Without Borders program. Soccer Without Borders is a nation wide youth development program that provides sports-based and extracurricular activities to under-served populations in the U.S. and abroad. This summer, the program has gotten a little help from incoming freshmen on the University of Northern Colorado football team. The kids and the football players usually meet every Tuesday and Thursday for a soccer camp at John Evans Middle School to play soccer and do other fun activities such as water fights and sledding on blocks down the hill behind the UNC softball fields. 

 It is a chance for kids like Hser Tha to have fun playing a game that they love while adapting to their new culture and new way of life in Greeley. Being around the football players and seeing their fun-loving spirit has helped kids open up and show their own exuberant personalities. "They make us laugh and they are awesome," Hser Tha said. Sometimes, though, it is hard to figure out who is really helping whom. The players seem to enjoy it just as much as the kids and are getting just as much from the experience. The freshmen who are working with the Soccer Without Borders program are here this summer as part of UNC's Bridge Program that helps high school graduates bridge the gap between high school and college. 

The program teaches incoming students how to do things like access online technology and interact with professors to make their adjustment to college life easier. Angie Henderson, an associate professor in sociology at UNC and its department chair, decided to pilot the program that matched the UNC football players with the kids after Abby Smith from Soccer Without Borders approached her about the program. Henderson knew that Soccer Without Borders needed mentors, so she recruited the freshman football players to help. "So they are my guinea pigs," Henderson joked. Anthony Davis, who will be a freshman defensive back for UNC this fall, said that players didn't know what to expect at first, but once they started playing soccer with the kids they became attached to them. "Any time you get to come out here and have an effect on somebody's life, it is a great opportunity and I really enjoy it," Davis said. "People don't get a lot of chances to come out here and help these guys. So for them to choose us to do it, it is awesome.

 I wouldn't trade it for the world." And the players have learned as much from the kids as the kids have from the players both on and off the field. Jacob Drage, a freshman tight end/receiver for UNC, has played soccer only once in his life before working at the camp. But kids like Hser Neh Kaw, another Thailand refugee from Burma, have helped tutor him about the game. "They are pretty good out here," Drage said. "They will give you a run for your money." More importantly, the kids have taught him lessons about life he will never forget. "Just to not take things for granted, I guess," Drage said. "You just kind of see where they come from and it is kind of a hard background whether some of us can relate to it or not. It is just good to make sure they are happy and make their day better." Smith, who helped start the Soccer Without Borders program in Northern Colorado three years ago, has seen the impact the players have on the kids and knows it will help them in the future. "For them to be around college students to give them an idea that they can go to college and that they can play sports -- that it is possible -- is really good for them," Smith said.

 "It is really good for them to have those role models to look up to because a lot of them don't even have the opportunity to go to school until they came here." Distributed by MCT Information Services