On Thanksgiving Day 2019, while most of us helped ourselves to a turkey feast here in the land of plenty, two Livermore Fusion Soccer Club players visited a rural South American village, helping others who have very little. Fusion 2002 (U18) Girls NPL players Megan G and Sophia B serve as Ambassadors for Girls Soccer Worldwide (GSW), a Livermore-based nonprofit. Founded in 2016, GSW’s mission is to “empower girls to rise out of poverty through sports and education.”
During the Thanksgiving break, Megan and Sophia joined 12 other Ambassadors on GSW’s fourth annual mission to Coronel Bogado, an impoverished rural village in southern Paraguay. All of the Ambassadors, ranging in age from 15-18, play for Tri-Valley youth soccer teams. Reflecting GSW’s “girls empowering girls” mantra, they are all female.
Coronel Bogado’s entrenched machismo culture has greatly limited the athletic and academic opportunities available to girls. “In Coronel Bogado, girls are often shamed for playing sports, and at times are removed from school to work or stay home and take care of their younger siblings,” said GSW Co-Founder/President Pamela Jacobsen. “We are committed to equalizing the playing field for girls, both in soccer and education.”
During their week-long visit, the Ambassadors immersed themselves in the lives of the local girls, teaching them soccer, visiting their homes, going to their schools and imparting life skills that can help the girls uplift themselves. “Our days started at 7 AM,” Megan said. “We’d set out to school, usually on foot, to teach English, set up a computer lab or interact with the kids. We’d return to our hotel around noon, then hit the soccer field at 2:30 to play an exhibition game with a local team or teach clinics.”
At night, the Ambassadors met for discussion sessions with the Trailblazers, a cohort of female former student-athletes in their 20’s who joined the trip as volunteer chaperones. The Trailblazers served as “strong, athletic female role models”, Megan noted, and the discussions helped the Ambassadors “focus on how we can be better people and surround ourselves with positive influences. Gift giving is an integral part of each GSW trip. GSW raises money to fund the purchase of school supplies, sneakers and a gym outfit for pre-selected girls and boys in Coronel Bogado.
On the recent trip, the Ambassadors delivered 90 backpacks stuffed with goodies, one for each child at a local K-6 school. “My favorite GSW memory was giving a backpack to a girl named Jazsmin,” Megan said. “Her eyes lit up and a huge smile grew on her face. I teared up because of how happy she became just with the basic supplies we were providing. Jazsmin wants to be a teacher when she grows up, and dreams about going to the US and seeing the Statue of Liberty. It’s my dream to help Jazsmin accomplish her dream.” GSW has also supported Coronel Bogado schools by supplying laptops and an internet tower. Software company SAP gifted the laptops and donations to GSW funded the tower.
The connection between GSW and Coronel Bogado dates back to 1991, when Argentinian native Walter Pratte, then a semi-pro soccer player, visited the town to play a match. “I was deeply moved by the kindness and generosity of this community that had so little and gave so much,” Walter said. Upon leaving, he vowed to “come back to give back.” 25 years later he fulfilled that vow by co-founding GSW with his wife, Ms. Jacobsen. Mr. Pratte and Ms. Jacobsen are especially proud to have established the first ever girls’ soccer team in Coronel Bogado, Las Pioneras (The Pioneers). The team consists of 25 girls ages 7-18, with most of the girls 12-15. The girls train regularly under a professional coach and the team is building connections to other teams in surrounding communities.
“Until very recently, starting a girls’ soccer team in Coronel Bogado would have been unthinkable,” Ms. Jacobsen said. “Creating Las Pioneras is a tremendous milestone. The girls are proud to be female soccer players instead of carrying the shame once reinforced by social stigmas,” she added. Las Pioneras team members are eligible for financial assistance from GSW to help pay for books, uniforms, tuition and tutoring. In return, the girls must perform community service work and maintain good grades and attendance.
In addition to improving the lives of the girls of Coronel Bogado, GSW has profoundly impacted the perspectives of the Ambassadors. “Seeing what actual poverty looks like has changed me tremendously,” Megan said. “Many of the homes I visited in Paraguay were beaten down, with dirt floors and outhouses. Yet, the families proudly gave us tours of their homes, even though they know they do not live in luxury. This made me realize that we in America often focus too much on materialistic things and not enough on our relationships, which are far more important.” This was Megan’s second GSW trip to Coronel Bogado, and she looks forward to participating in future trips.
GSW faces significant hurdles to convince the girls of Coronel Bogado to embrace their potential, and overcome the resistance of men who cling to old prejudices about a woman's place in society. But after four years, the organization has made significant headway. “History tells us the most impactful way to create change and break the cycle of poverty within any community is to empower and educate women and girls,” Ms. Jacobsen noted. “This is what we have set out to do, one community, one girl at a time.”