Soccer socializing tool for people on fringes of Comox Valley society

There aren't many signs of life at the Maple Pool Campground in Courtenay, except for a group of soccer players on a grass field.

STREET SOCCER ACTION happens on grass at the Maple Pool Campground in Courtenay.

STREET SOCCER ACTION happens on grass at the Maple Pool Campground in Courtenay.

It’s late afternoon at the Maple Pool Campground and RV Park. There aren’t many signs of life throughout the site off Headquarters Road in Courtenay, except for a group of soccer players on the grass field at the rear of the park.

Two teams of four play on a field about 22 metres long. Joan laughs as she skids on the slick surface resulting from a light rain on this cool June day.

“I felt like I was skiing,” she quips.

A few minutes into the game, Martin decides to kick off his shoes and play barefoot. Like Martin, Gord displays natural foot speed as he chases the ball and fires home a goal. Though not as nimble as the other two, the heavier-set James understands positioning and is able to control and pass the ball with ease.

Others show up as the game progresses. Dressed in a grey hoodie and kickboxing pants, Ian strolls over from an RV and plays goalie for our team. Then the 20something Dan, accompanied by his blue healer dog, arrives by bicycle and joins the other team. Dan’s experience with a hacky sack is evident as he tears around the pitch.

These are among the 10 or 12 regulars who participate in a weekly street soccer program that provides an opportunity for people on the fringes of society to exercise, socialize and have fun.

“It’s just startling to see how much fun they have,” said program co-ordinator Grant Shilling, a residential support program worker at the Dawn to Dawn: Action on Homelessness Society. “It’s a good social occasion.”

Gary and John were reluctant participants at first but once immersed in the action as goalies, they wanted to stay in the game.

“We’ve had guys literally on crutches in net,” Shilling said.

After nearly an hour of play we break for water, fruit and cookies. During halftime I discover Martin’s lifelong love of astronomy as he explains the transit of Venus, a once-in-a-lifetime event that happens as we speak.

“One of the things that soccer brings out is the social element, that people start to tell their stories,” Shilling said. “In telling their stories they feel good about themselves.”

Campsite owners Dali and Jin Lin, who operate a Community Living Project at Maple Pool, join the game in the second half. Dali plays out while Jin snaps a few photos before taking a turn in goal.

After nearly two hours of play, the game winds down. Four of us arrange a picnic table, where Jin places two trays of submarine sandwiches. Dessert is cheesecake.

Most of the players live at Maple Pool. Shilling also ‘recruits’ participants at the local soup kitchen.

Collectively, they have formed a team called Maple Pool United. Though the program is still in its infancy, Shilling said the squad is ready to challenge another four-person team, perhaps in Victoria.

In August, Street Soccer Canada will scout the program, possibly selecting a Valley representative to play at the 2012 Homeless World Cup in Mexico City.

But competition aside, the main focus of the program is participation. Shilling notes that bad habits tend to lessen once people start exercising.

“When people start showing up to the soccer they have fun and they also start to make connections to other behaviours in terms of harm reduction — trying to live a healthier lifestyle,” Shilling said.

“It’s a basic human want and desire to laugh and to have fun. We get to laugh at ourselves. I think it brings us back almost to a child-like state where we’re in the playground again.

“Once you begin to experience the joy of life, you want more of that. It doesn’t have to be just through soccer; it can be through an attitude shift. So hopefully we’re planting the seed.”

Donations of cleats, food and money would enhance the program. Monetary donations could possibly fund a road trip for the team.

For more information, contact Shilling at 250-218-3136.

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