At Pretty Tough we get to see lots of incredible girls doing incredible things and wanted to bring your attention to one special girl we just had the pleasure of working with on a unique soccer event.
Julia Blanco will be a senior at the Polytechnic School in Pasadena this fall. She is on the varsity soccer and track team and has played for the Crescenta Valley Soccer Club since 2005. The ambitious student is a senior class community outreach representative as well as the founder and president of the school’s Soccer Without Borders club while carrying a heavy course load. She is pursuing a Certificate in Global Studies and will have taken multiple AP and honors classes when she graduates from high school in June 2013.
Two years ago, Blanco had the opportunity of a lifetime – to participate in a language/culture exchange in a small middle-class Argentinian city. She lived in a homestay with a mom and twin girls her age – her sisters and best friends for the summer. While they shared tastes in music and fashion, their social experiences couldn’t have been more different. As an example, Julia loves playing soccer. While in Argentina, she met with a trainer twice weekly so she could keep in shape. Her new “sisters” looked mystified as she tied her cleats. Culturally, soccer and other sports aren’t available for most girls in Argentina. When she returned home, Julia realized the same phenomenon existed within her own community. She was surrounded by economically disadvantaged and newly immigrant children – mostly girls — who were systematically excluded from sports and other extracurricular activities.
Soon after, Blanco learned about Soccer Without Borders and how its programs have the potential to create positive change for children and young adults, both domestically and abroad. She immediately volunteered as an ambassador with the hope of creating a Southern California presence. The immediate goal was to raise awareness and use soccer to create positive change locally. Beginning in August 2010, she started a Soccer Without Borders club at her high school and built a core group of future volunteers. They held a successful equipment drive, sending boxes of uniforms, gear and coaching supplies to community youth groups and international sport-based programs.
Next, Julia recruited a group of about 20 soccer coaches, players and school volunteers for her inaugural community: “KickStart for Kids” was a free clinic held in partnership with the City of Pasadena. The clinic’s goal was to bring soccer training to kids who may not be able to afford the AYSO or club soccer fees. Kick Start for Kids advertised the clinic at schools in under served areas in Los Angeles and distributed flyers at Boys and Girls Clubs and the YMCA. They collected donations from Adidas, the LA Galaxy, and local vendors. Over 250 boys and girls took part and some ofthe donated equipment helped outfit kids who never had the chance to play before. The most rewarding part for Julia and her new group was helping some young players put on cleats for the very first time. They could see the kids’ excitement — and nervousness — as they tried on their new gear. American soccer legend Alexi Lalas and a California congressman joined the kids, each telling stories about their youth soccer days and underscoring the message that dedication and hard work pays off.
To support Soccer Without Borders’ broader goals, Julia’s group subsequently organized a fundraising “Girls in the Game” clinic with Major League Soccer’s LA Galaxy. They invited young female players from across Southern California through hundreds of emails to team administrators and coaches, league managers, potential volunteers, and sponsors. Former international soccer star John O’Brien worked alongside a group of ten female volunteer coaches — all current or former college or professional players. In their first event, 100 girls from across the region joined the clinic and they raised nearly $10,000 in direct and in-kind contributions. Equally important, they built awareness and reached a new group of potential Soccer Without Borders donors and volunteers. Recently, they held their second annual “Girls in the Game” clinic, reaching even more kids and doubling their event fundraising total to date.
On a personal level, Blanco was 1 of 14 American girls who participated in Soccer Without Borders’ inaugural “Sports-based Youth Development Seminar and Cultural Exchange” program in Nicaragua in July 2011. Each program participant was required to raise $500 for the program. Through her friends and family’s generous donations they raised in excess of $3,000. Julia also lugged a huge box of donated soccer equipment with her, as many of the supplies are unavailable in the region she visited. The program taught her first-hand about harnessing the power of sports to build confidence and provide a platform for educating young girls who are often under served and socially excluded. Many girls in the region drop out of school at an early age because they are forced to work or become pregnant. SWB’s program delivered promise and opportunity for this group of girls. For Julia, coaching and playing with these girls was a life-changing experience. This year, Julia is heading back to Granada in late summer and she looks forward to seeing the girls she met last year.
In Los Angeles, SWB’s footprint is expanding. Last August, John O’Brien spearheaded SWB’s first refugee and immigrant youth soccer camp in Glendale, and a second program in Anaheim last December. Working with about 105 children who were recent immigrants, Julia’s group of coaches and volunteers bridged the language gap and helped ease the transition into their new lives.
Blanco is particularly excited about the upcoming year, as Soccer Without Borders is now a known quantity in her community. Their volunteer ranks are increasing, and plans are already underway for the next 12 months.
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Photos courtesy of Janelle Blanco