Impact of grassroots club has positive impact
On a sunny Saturday morning, a steady stream of children make their way to a playground in the southwest community of Glenbrook. There is cheerful chaos as friends are greeted, shin pads strapped on and shoe laces tightened up.
After everybody has their equipment sorted out, the older kids stretch and run laps around an adjacent field. Later they will clean garbage and debris off the field before engaging in soccer drills and a scrimmage game. Occasionally they have to clean up broken bottles. Off to the side a small group of three and four-year-olds energetically chase balls around tiny pylons, their jerseys hanging down to their knees.
The Saturday Morning Soccer Club is in session.
Focused on neighbourhood's needs
Founded two years ago by Jean-Claude Munyezamu, the club is open to any child who wants to play, but has a special focus on those on those from lower-income families who are new to Canada. The club plays in a park that is surrounded by a large complex of subsidized townhouses. Many are home to refugees and new immigrants.
Munyezamu says that families who are new to Canada often face a number of challenges when it comes to putting their children in organized sports — ranging from cost, transportation issues, language barriers and social isolation.
Munyezamu, who moved to Canada from his native Rwanda in 1998, also understands many of the struggles these families face, such as coping with social isolation and loneliness. He wanted to do something to help.
By all accounts, the club has been a resounding success. There are currently 65 children from 14 different countries involved with the club. They range in age from teenagers to toddlers. A unique partnership with the Christian Life Assembly church and Youth Unlimited Calgary, an outreach group, has allowed Munyezamu to grow the club and expand its impact on the neighbourhood.
He now has his sights set on a new goal: obtaining a proper field for the team to play on.
Will Ferguson, whose 11-year-old son Alistair plays with the club, first met Munyezamu though the Calgary Minor Soccer Association. He has been helping with Munyezamu's efforts to get a proper field in place. In addition to the lack of goal posts, Ferguson says other landscaping issues mean the club can't invite other teams to play on their field.
"They are not asking for something special or anything out of the ordinary," Ferguson says. "They are just asking for what other neighbourhoods take for granted — a proper playing field."
Munyezamu recently invited Ward Six Alderman Richard Pootmans to spend a Saturday morning with the club. In addition to running sprints with the players and joining in on a game, Pootmans was afforded the opportunity to examine the field.
Without committing to anything, Pootmans said he was interested in helping the club in its quest for a proper field.
"I can certainly start the process with the parks department and find out what the status of this field is, what the plans are, and what has to happen," Pootmans said.
"My guess is that there is no budget to do anything this year, but what can we consider it for next year."
A team for every player
While most of the club's players live in the Glenbrook neighbourhood, the club welcomes all who are interested. The club also has players of all abilities. For those with no soccer experience, drills are set up to help them learn the basics.
"My goal is for every kid to have a soccer club that they can join," Munyezamu says. A certified coach with the Calgary Minor Soccer Association, Munyezamu set up the club with a holistic mindset. There is an emphasis on sportsmanship, teamwork and building confidence.
"Soccer is not just about kicking the ball. There is leadership and responsibility as well as sharing," Munyezamu says. "I want them to experience all that."
"Having a water bottle, a uniform and a soccer ball is a type of identity," he says. "When a kid puts on a uniform, you can just see what it means to them. You can feel it."
Ferguson says Munyezamu's grassroots approach allows the players to develop soccer skills in a supportive environment.
"He wants to get these kids integrated into the Calgary Minor Soccer Association," Ferguson says. "But you can't just drop them into organized sport."
"They get to know what practices and drills are like. He helps them get to the necessary skill level."
Munyezamu's approach is working: several of the club's players are now also playing with competitive league teams. Munyezamu often helps them arrange rides to games and practices. He is currently making arrangements to place more of his players on league teams.
One of Munyezamu's goals was to create something that would enable involvement by
the players' families as well. To that end he encourages parents to attend the Saturday morning practices to help out on the field or just to watch. His aim is to have them establish a connection with other parents and club volunteers.
In addition to the social element, Munyezamu says volunteering within the community provides the parents a valuable opportunity to adjust and contribute to their new country.
"It's easy for the parents to volunteer here because they are not required to drive since it's their own neighbourhood," Munyezamu says. "They are new Canadians, this is a good way to introduce them to volunteerism."
In keeping with Munyezamu's aim of family involvement, the club also has a secondary goal of establishing a mini-field so very young players can participate and learn the basics of the game.
"Jean-Claude doesn't turn anybody away," Ferguson says. "Even if three-year-olds show up, he has them play."
Andrew Bitcon, owner of the city's two Bubbles Car Wash & Detail Centres, is among those who have supported Munyezamu's efforts. Munyezamu first met Bitcon when he was learning English. Two have volunteered together at a variety of Calgary organizations, including The Mustard Seed Calgary and Inn from the Cold.
Bitcon and his wife have provided financial and moral support for the club. He is now helping Munyezamu set up a registered charity— a process that will help make it easier for the club to accept donations.
Bitcon says Munyezamu has a strong sense of compassion that is accompanied by practicality.
"Jean-Claude is one of those people that can look out and see a problem," Bitcon says. "He's already working on the solution before anybody else has figured out that there even is a problem."
Bitcon says it's the "extra things" about the club that make it so special, and such a valuable resource.
"There are so many kids here who are new Canadians and feel isolated and like they don't fit in," Bitcon says. "But soccer is a common thing that gets everybody together."
"There is a much bigger need for this than I thought there was."
Church offers its support
The partnership with Christian Life Assembly has allowed Munyezamu to expand the scope of the club. Police-screened volunteers from the church attend each Saturday to provide snacks, help out on the field, and visit with the parents. The church has also provided financial support to for the club to rent gym space to play in during the winter, and to obtain equipment and uniforms for those players who can't afford it. Beyond the field, parents have been able to connect to various outreach services offered by the church, such as free ESL classes for adults.
Munyezamu says the partnership has allowed the church to direct its resources to families who can benefit in many ways.
"There are many good-hearted people in the church," Munyezamu says, "But sometimes they aren't sure of the best way to help.
"This is a way for them to connect in a very positive way with families in this neighbourhood."
Wendy Aston, a pastor with Christian Life Assembly, says the club has an "inviting and including" approach. Children do not have to be members of the church's congregation to join the club. No one is turned away.
"We are always careful with any mention of faith, as we have kids from very diverse backgrounds and don't want to make anyone uncomfortable," Aston says.
The partnership has been mutually beneficial. Aston says that members of the congregation have been enthusiastic to support the soccer club any way they can.
"It is now attracting people who, in the past, might not have considered helping with such a program," Aston says. "Churches are a wonderful resource with a built-in community of volunteers looking for somewhere to serve.
"It's affordable, it's local, it's well supervised and parents feel safe sending their kids to it," Aston says. "It is gaining a wonderful reputation in the community and parents are sending increasingly younger kids out."
While his immediate concern is to have a proper soccer field set up where the club currently plays, Munyezamu has his sights firmly set on expanding beyond his neighbourhood. Once permanent goal posts are obtained and installed on the field, his next goal will be to get some portable posts.
"I want to be able to move the posts to another neighbourhood and set up a similar club," Munyezamu says. He also has plans to compile a training manual for future clubs.
Aston says Munyezamu is a "visionary."
"He continues to find ways of benefiting those around him."
Munyezamu and Christian Life Assembly will be holding a soccer camp from August 20-24. He is hoping the camp will attract new players and their families. More information on the camp or about how to make a financial donation to help sponsor a child to attend can be found at christianlifeassembly.org/
- By KARRY TAYLOR