LeBolt: A Costa Rican lesson on “Pura Vida,” and youth soccer’s real value

WendyLeBolt-HeaderWhat do you want your kid to get out of their youth soccer experience?

Ask a bunch of parents that question and you’re likely to hear a collection of all the “right” answers. We want the kids to have fun, make friends, build fitness and learn a skill.  We expect them to learn teamwork, good sportsmanship, fair play and develop the diligence to work hard toward their goals.

We probably don’t say, but we’re also thinking, that we want them to get on the best team possible so they have a better chance of catching the eye of a respected club coach, who will showcase their talent at the tournaments, where college coaches will be on the lookout.

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We may not say it, but the kids know it. “Yeah, we all play for McLean/Burke/Arlington/Herndon (etc),” they’re happy to tell you. Then they give a scornful look to the kid with the glasses sitting next to them, quietly eating his snack. “He plays rec.”

Meaning, don’t bother with that kid; he only plays on his neighborhood team, while my parents drive me across town three times a week for practices, across the state or region for games and invest thousands per year to enter tournaments. Mind you, these are 9- and 10-year-olds.

This sort of conversation was ringing in my ears last week as I watched children happily play in the pouring rain on muddy fields, defined by trenches dug for lines. Many had arrived by bicycle, some riding tandem on the same seat with a sibling or friend.

They were in no hurry to leave either, even when the thunder and lightning rolled in, and the rain pelted harder. It’s what’s expected during the rainy season in Costa Rica. It’s a warm rain, like a shower. You’ll dry. “Pura Vida!” they say.

The good life.

I really wanted my young club soccer compatriots to see what I was seeing and to marvel with me at the different way these Costa Rican kids embraced the game and who didn’t think twice about “substandard” field conditions or even the danger of the looming weather. And not a parent in sight, apart from the coach buried in the after-match huddle.

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It got me thinking about a friend who brought her team, the CYA Titans, to Costa Rica four years ago on a spring break trip meant to conclude their youth soccer experience. They were ‘only’ a rec team, competing in the Washington, D.C. region’s Suburban Friendship League. Their coach, Lisa Bishop, started with the Titans when they were pint-sized, and as high school graduation approached, she wanted to have a big send-off.

Lisa B 5So how do you say goodbye to girls who have been family for nearly a decade? You take them on a service trip to Costa Rica where they have an experience that will change their lives.

Lisa got the idea for the trip from Chloe, one of her players, who had gone on a trip with an organization called Rustic Pathways each of the last 3 summers. The Titans raised about $4,600 through yard sales and team-supported fund raisers to help pay for the trip. All of the 18 team members contributed to the effort, even though only 9 players were able to go. They went to play soccer and see Costa Rica. No showcase tournaments. Just play.

The guides from Rustic Pathways knew about a soccer club called Los Onze (The 11) set up by Enrique Salazar Diaz. The Titans would spend three to six hours each day playing soccer and running a camp for these kids.

The girls loved these kids and the kids loved them. Just check out the pictures.

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boys and girls

While Lisa told me that all of the trip was great, what was astounding was something the girls, their guides, chaperone and coach didn’t count on — a visit to the homes of two of the boys who had come to the camp.

The Titan girls couldn’t believe their living conditions. They immediately agreed to pool all the spending money they brought for the trip to help out these families.

Lisa remembers the trip to Jean Paul’s house when the Titans brought groceries. “There was not a dry eye in the room, coaches, kids, guides, family.”

“That money took Jean Paul’s family from a dirt-floor shack to a real house and paid their rent for four months. Plus, it paid the entry fee for the U-11 and U-13 team into the national tournament,” Lisa says. “Four of the U-13 boys are being evaluated for the national team.”

Lisa B 9As a result, the Titans started a non-profit organization through the Rustic Pathways foundation to support Enrique’s kids. Subsequent fundraising went to support those boys and the many more that might be helped thanks to their generosity.

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“The Titans are an exceptional group of young women,” Lisa says, “About half of them graduated in May after their four years.  About half are still working on school. Several have done study abroad programs, three of whom hope to live together in Belgium for grad school next year.

“At least one of the girls decided to work with underprivileged people for her career and she credits this trip with identifying and stoking her passion for this kind of work.”

It is amazing the doors that soccer opens, isn’t it? No, it wasn’t cheap for these kids to travel to a distant destination to experience the people, culture and camaraderie of Costa Rica and to make a difference for those kids.

DSCF0877But after some fundraising, and with the dollars that would be spent on travel and fees for one “showcase” tournament, you’ve got a pretty good start on a life-changing opportunity. For those kids AND our kids.

There are lots of organizations that offer soccer and service trips for young people and adult coaches and chaperones. Here are just a few:

*Rustic Pathways

*Coaches Across Continents

*Soccer Without Borders

*SCORE International

There are also many US based programs that offer kids the opportunity to give back to their own communities through soccer. These would LOVE to have our soccer-playing kids participate. Here are a few:

*Soccer for Success (under the U.S. Soccer Foundation) has affiliates across the country (for example, in the Philadelphia area)

*America SCORES

*Street Football World

*Goals for Girls

*Woza Soccer

*Top Soccer

Most have set out simply to change the world through football.

Coach Bishop and the Titans didn’t set out to change the world. In fact, Lisa probably thought the experience would just be good for the kids. But…

“Coaching the Titans was certainly one of the defining opportunities and accomplishments of my life,” she says.

Who can afford to miss that? Maybe this isn’t just a kid thing.