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Teaching Girl Power out on the Pitch

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This summer, the IRC in San Diego hosted Girls Soccer, an athletic program for refugee and immigrant girls. The players met three times a week to work on their soccer abilities and learn other life skills. The four pillars of the program—communication, teamwork, professionalism and nutrition—were at the center of every lesson taught by Coach Jessica Wawrzyniak, Senior Career Development Coordinator at the IRC in San Diego. On the final day, the girls met for one last scrimmage and a celebratory feast.

Just after 4 o’clock on a sunny July Thursday, the Red Team kicked off. The girls quickly moved into formation ready to advance the ball through a pitch fortified by White Team defenders. Suddenly, Coach Jessica shouts, “Whoa whoa whoa! I don’t remember blowing a whistle.” Realizing they jumped the gun, embarrassed looks and guilty smiles spread across the players’ faces. They had just received a refresher in one of the hard-learned skills they’d been taught all summer: listening.

“They’re always very excited to get going. That’s for sure.” said Allison Collins, Senior Instructional Specialist for IRC’s Youth Program who served as assistant coach. She talked about why the program was such cause for excitement. “Some of these girls come from cultures that aren’t as accepting of women in sports or women in leadership positions. This is a fun way they get to participate in both.” Wawrzyniak adds, “Since some don’t have much sports experience and wouldn’t be able to play on their school team, this is one of the only free ways for them to have soccer access.”


Not only does the program fill a gap in local soccer activities for the girls, but it gives them an opportunity to meet with other female leaders. The team was visited by guest speakers, including a talk with Anna Obura, a refugee who now studies and plays soccer at CSU San Marcos, and a practice session run by Carrie Taylor, a professional soccer coach. One of the speakers was Sara Szunyogh, a local yoga instructor. Szunyogh uses yoga, among other disciplines, to teach wellness methods and higher principles. On the day she donated her time to Girls Soccer, she used team yoga poses to illustrate how the girls are stronger when they support each other.

Coach Jessica remarked, “The topics she brought to the table were so important for these young women to understand. She talked about how discovering yoga when she was a teenager and how it helped her accept the body she was in because it could do powerful things.” She recalled a particularly moving moment during the shavasana cool down period. “While the girls were lying there, Susan asked them to say something encouraging to themselves. These girls have had experiences I can’t even comprehend, and to hear them whispering these really positive statements to themselves was so powerful.”


The girls also learned how communication is key to making the team function. Allison explains, “We encourage them to be loud. That it’s okay to use their voices.” Again, this lesson doesn’t come as naturally to girls from more restrictive cultures, but it’s one that drives leadership on and off the field. Allison talked about a girl who showed a great amount of personal growth during the summer. “Kler had some experience with soccer, so she had more skill than some of the other girls. By the end of the program, she came out of her shell. She was much more willing to take the role of coordinator and encourage the other girls’ strengths.”


One of the biggest highlights was a field trip to see the U.S. National Women’s Team take on Brazil during the Tournament of Nations. This incredible treat was provided by a longtime supporter of the IRC  and the soccer program in particular. Team Brazil took an early lead in the game, which caused some of the girls to tune out. But by the final minutes, every one of them had put their phones away and got on their feet to cheer the U.S. Women, as a late-game goal gave them a 4–3 victory. Though the teammates come from diverse parts of the Middle East, Asia and Latin America, on that day they were definitely all Team USA.

The final scrimmage was just as exciting. The Red and White teams proved evenly matched, ending the game tied 1-1. Coach Jessica gathered the girls for the final huddle of the summer. It’ll be another year before IRC Girls Soccer starts again, but the team got an important reminder. “All you need to play is a ball and some friends.” Just like soccer, the life skills the girls learned are simple and easy to practice anytime. “I just want them to walk away knowing you can face challenges and overcome them, even the ones you put in front of yourself.”

After the game, the girls lined up to a delicious spread of chips, dips, fried chicken, rice and cookies. But that meant there was room for one last lesson in nutrition. “There’s lots of delicious stuff, but I want to see something healthy on those plates,” Coach Jessica reminded the girls. Fortunately, there were some locally grown fruit and veggie platters provided by Project CHOP, an IRC program that teaches women professional skills.


As the team, the coaches and the volunteers sat and ate, they talked about how much fun they had all summer. Then the conversation turned to a thing we all have in common. Molly, one of the volunteers talked with Noor, originally from Syria, about the Middle Eastern cuisine she liked. At the mention of her favorite dish, Noor lit up, “I loooove tabouli!” It was a sweet connection and reminder that no matter where we come from, we’re all on the same team: Team Food.


After the well-deserved feast, the girls cleaned up the picnic spot and walked off the pitch for the last time this summer. Though the wait is long until the next Girls Soccer meetup, every girl received something that should help them keep practicing in the meantime. Thanks to a number of generous donors, every girl got to go home with a uniform, a fresh pair of cleats, a new backpack, shinguards and a ball.

While the girls wait for next year’s soccer program, they can always draw from Coach Jessica’s words: “All you need to play is a ball and some friends.” Thanks to the donations of Girls Soccer’s generous supporters, they have both.