From the streets to the field

One day as William Williams was sitting in Monroe Park, a soccer ball came flying toward his head. Little did he know, that soccer ball would alter the direction of his life. Williams was homeless at that point, so he decided to catch the soccer ball and join Richmond’s Street Soccer team. He said that from that day on, the group put him between two cones, and he’s been playing ever since. Williams’ life started moving down a new path.

He said that by joining Richmond’s Street Soccer team- formed as a part of Street Soccer USA that helps to encourage homeless individuals or those at risk of becoming homeless- he went through not only a physical change in environment, but a mental change as well.

Lawrence Cann, the Founder of Street Soccer USA, said, all of the players are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. He said the street soccer program was designed to help the players create a network, or supportive community to help encourage members of the team. First, the players join the team and go to the practices. As the players attend practices and games, they build relationships with the coaches and other volunteers.

According to Cann, this community that is created is something many of the players are unfamiliar with, but it’s the type of community needed to encourage them.  Several of the players on Richmond’s Street Soccer team have already noticed the changes within their own lives because of the once unfamiliar game.

 Williams explained that for him, knowing that someone was relying on him to show up somewhere and knowing that if he didn’t show up they would miss him, kept him going. He said it helped him realize he was not alone.

“If you could wake up in the morning and say listen, ‘I don’t want to do anything negative because if I do [something] negative I’m not just hurting myself, I’m hurting everybody else that actually tried to help me.’ You’re not disrespecting yourself, you’re disrespecting the whole organization and everybody over those three years, five years that’s ever done anything good for you,” Williams said.

As for the soccer aspect of Richmond’s Street Soccer team, Williams said that most people have the misconception that the team is all about passing a soccer ball between the yellow lines in the street. The team practices free of charge in the gym of the First Baptist Church located on Monument Avenue. The team actually plays games as a part of the Central Virginia Soccer Association, a soccer league in Richmond. 

 Paul Watson and Daryl Grove are the co-coaches of the seven-member Richmond Street Soccer team. Watson said the CVSA has helped the team out financially. He added that the CVSA has worked to make their game schedule conducive to getting the players who do not have cars to the field.

 “As simple as it may seem, the game of soccer is foreign to a lot of people, especially in this country, especially the folks that we find that are coming from an at risk population. This is a very foreign atmosphere, and to see them get that simple confidence to step out on the soccer field and play this very strange game is great,” Watson said.

Although Williams admits that he is still perfecting his game, he said he is getting better. He said street soccer teaches players how to play the game and it gives them a better understanding of how to relate to other people from different walks of life and other mentalities. Williams said it gave him the opportunity to look through someone else’s eyes and to understand where they’ve been.

The most important aspect of street soccer, Watson said, is the fact that it gives the players a new community that is there for them throughout the process. The program helps them set goals and work towards attaining those goals. Whether the players are getting drug or alcohol rehabilitation, looking for a job or looking for housing, Watson said that street soccer works to help them achieve those goals.

“It [soccer] requires constant communication when you’re on the field. You know that’s one of the skills that are invaluable to someone who is still trying to find their feet in life, to sort of get back out of their comfort zone into a situation where they have to be communicating all the time with new people and different situations,” Watson said.

 Rodney Knight, a member of Richmond’s Street Soccer team since 2009, said communication hasn’t always been easy among members of the team. He said jokingly he used to tell people the team was like the “Bad News Bears.” Knight explained when the team was formed, there was a lot of bickering between the players. He said it was hard to adjust to a group of all new people who had different attitudes and personalities. Now, Knight said, the players are working together as a team and it feels like more of a family environment.

 Rob Ukrop, the Richmond Kickers Youth Soccer Club president and Jesse Myers, the assistant coach for the Richmond Kickers, worked with the players during a summer program. Ukrop recalled working with Knight and Williams when Richmond Street Soccer first formed. After each practice, Ukrop explained he had the guys- like any other team he has coached- come in, put their hands in the circle and shout their team name on the count of three. One day, however, he forgot to call the team together and instead dismissed them. Ukrop said Knight came running up to him and reminded him they all still needed to huddle before practice ended. Ukrop said he was excited to see Knight taking a leadership role on the team. 

Knight and Williams are just two of Richmond Street Soccer’s success stories. Knight became homeless after his car broke down. At the time he was living on the South Side of Richmond and his job was in Ashland. He said it was difficult to find someone to take him to work early in the morning and pick him up late in the afternoon. When he couldn’t find a way to work, Knight left his home because he didn’t want to be a burden on his family. From there, Knight said he ended up in a shelter.

One day while Knight was in Monroe Park, his friend told him there were a bunch of guys just playing a pickup game of soccer. He said the Richmond Kickers were there too; asking if anyone wanted to participate in Richmond Street Soccer. Knight said he had only played soccer a few times as a child, but he still decided to go out there and kick the ball around with some of the players. Knight said he’s been playing ever since.

After becoming part of the Street Soccer program, Knight was able to work as a reception intern at the Daily Planet, an affiliate of Richmond Street Soccer. This past June he was promoted to become the maintenance person there. Knight pointed out  he was reaching his goals both on and off the field. This year, at the Street Soccer USA Cup, Knight said he was selected as one of eight players to be part of the U.S. Homeless World Cup team.

“It was an amazing thing to hear that he [Knight] had been rewarded for his camaraderie, his great team work, and his commitment through being recognized as a player that would be taken to the World Cup to represent the larger Street Soccer organization. For us, part of the larger Street Soccer organization, we’re still relatively young, we’re still kind of finding our feet as an organization so to have one of the players recognized in that way it was really great,” Watson said.

Unfortunately, Knight became ill and was not able to make the trip to Paris to play in the Homeless World Cup, but he said he was honored to be chosen.

Now, Knight acts as a mentor for the team. He said he knows it’s easy for players to get discouraged, so he tries to encourage them when they become frustrated. Williams said he too hopes to pay it forward by becoming a mentor to other teammates. He explained that it would take him all of two lifetimes to pay back all the people that helped him on his journey.

As a volunteer, Ukrop said that he went to watch the team play in the Street Soccer USA Cup in Washington, D.C.  Afterwards, he took the team out for lunch. While they were eating lunch, he said a homeless woman came up to them and asked if they had any money or food that she could have. One of the guys looked at her and said they couldn’t help her because they were homeless too.

According to Ukrop, after the lady left, Williams began wrapping his sandwich and asked if he could give the woman his sandwich. Ukrop gave him $20 and told him to take the woman to get some food. Williams then took the woman by the hand and walked her across the street to get a meal for her. When Williams returned, escorting the lady back across the street, Ukrop said he the woman gave Williams a big hug and continued on her way. Williams gave Ukrop the change, two 5-dollar-bills and a 10 dollar bill, the exact amount Ukrop had given him. Ukrop explained that someone had decided to give them a free meal.

Williams said that he too wants to wants to become a volunteer. He said he is trying to act as a mentor to other players on Richmond’s Street Soccer team.

 “A wise man once said there’s nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer. To do that [be a volunteer] you have to have enough heart to be able to handle different situations, different walks of life, different mentalities and to have the understanding that you can learn just as much from us as we can learn from you,” Williams said.

As a volunteer, Watson said it’s the times off the field, helping a player move into his new apartment or bringing him sheets for his new bed that are the most rewarding.

Knight said the team tries to recruit players at shelters in the Richmond area by telling them what Richmond Street Soccer is all about, and then giving them the opportunity to join the team. He explained that the excuse he hears the most, for a person who doesn’t seem interested in playing on the team, is that the person doesn’t play soccer. Knight said he usually tells them to just come out and give it a shot because they may like playing. He said he always lets the potential players know it won’t be a “cakewalk,” but it is possible to learn from the sport.

Knight also said he has been doing speaking engagements at local schools telling audiences about his experience. He explained that he doesn’t mind telling people his story because he wants everyone to know that homelessness is not something people have to look down upon and belittle. Knight said he even points out everything he has accomplished, even in times of trouble.

“It’s a shame that lots of times, especially with the homeless population, people make a quick judgment about who somebody is or what they stand for based on what you [they] see on the outside. Again, like what my mom and dad always taught me from my youth was, take the time to get to find out what’s on the inside of people,” Ukrop said.

Williams pointed out there could be any number of reasons for a person to become homeless. He added that it’s important for people to realize you cannot define someone by their situation.

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