It’s been two months since my return from Nicaragua, where I was working as a Team Leader and Soccer Coach for Fútbol Sin Fronteras (Soccer Without Borders), an NGO that uses soccer as a vehicle for positive change in the lives of underserved youth.

Playing for change. You’ve probably heard the catchall phrase a million times over. “I want to help young women overcome obstacles and break cycles…I want to use the universal language of fútbol for the greater good.” Yes, these thoughts and perhaps ambitious aspirations are powerful and consequential in and of themselves, but they fail to so much as scratch the surface of authentic collaboration that uses sport for social change. It’s only now – after two months in the U.S. – that I feel confident enough to sit down and attempt to shine light on the amazing young women (FSF players and participants) who taught me more about sport for change and life more generally than I could have ever possibly imagined during my stint in Nicaragua.

At its core, FSF imparts a space that simultaneously fosters teamwork and individual growth, providing girls with an opportunity to overcome obstacles in their lives. In Nicaragua, 28 percent of girls are pregnant by age 18, 52 percent do not complete primary school, many are expected to raise siblings – the list goes on. Their chances of becoming engaged and educated members of society are slim; there are simply stumbling blocks at every turn. While sport and sports teams have been proven to address these challenges (particularly with girls), 90 percent of girls in Nicaragua (a number that I would imagine to be quite similar across the region) report barriers to participation, and just 13 percent report playing sports, formally or informally.

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Jessica Lopez in Nicaragua

The concept – using sport to provide a safe space and address challenges on and off the field – may seem simple, but it’s invaluable all the same. Girls come back to FSF because they trust the program; they enjoy laughing and studying with their friends and teammates. They feel valued. They have a voice that carries import; their goals and dreams are achievable, and deep down, they believe in the process. One of FSF’s principles is “process-oriented,” or the belief that investing in a quality process is more important than the outcome itself, for it creates a culture of acceptance, inclusion, and supported progress towards goals.

The beautiful game is the same no matter where you play it.

I wholeheartedly believe that energy and spirit are everything, that creating warm and welcoming environments is paramount, and that transforming even the most simple soccer drill into the most exciting thing a girl has ever taken part in can be incredibly rewarding for all parties involved. Passion can go a long way. So it should come as no surprise to hear that in many ways I realized that the beautiful game is the same no matter where you play it, barring the presence of the aforementioned caveats. There’s a certain joy that comes from being a part of an inclusive, pseudo-family team environment, feeling as though you belong and are a valued member of a group, picking up a ball and playing pickup on whatever patch of dried up dirt you can find.

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Whereas here in the U.S. we might emphasize whole person growth to an extent, sport for development (S4D) takes it to another level entirely, especially in its efforts to help youth better understand their bodies, minds, and voices. In a conversation with a co-worker during the earliest stages of my work, I became cognizant of the fact that la cosa clave, the key to S4D, is that personal growth is foremost. Regardless of whether or not a participant becomes the next Marta or Lady Andrade during her time with FSF, her personal development as a smart, contributing member of society who’s enrolled in school, avoiding risky behavior, and generally making healthy decisions is number one (who knows, maybe she’ll become the next Amelia Valverde, the 28-year-old coach of Costa Rica’s brilliant women’s national team). What happens on the soccer pitch is important only inasmuch as it allows her to connect life skills to tangible education and career opportunities.

I went to Nicaragua to help, but I also went to grow.

Someone told me that my work in Nicaragua was a “hard gift,” a hard gift indeed. I saw extraordinary images of life, hope, and resilience every single day that I shared the pitch with peers and participants, juxtaposed by images of hardship and despair that to this day remain plastered in my mind and heart. I went to Nicaragua to help, but I also went to learn and grow in ways that a four-year liberal arts education could have never taught me. On a macro level, soccer provides hope for people (and societies) who exude more care and compassion on the micro than anyone I’ve ever met or probably will ever meet. People who have so little by way of material objects and yet give so much of themselves on a daily basis. These snapshots – of life, hope, resilience, despair – came and went when I least expected them, each time breaking barriers in favor of a more genuine expression of myself and more authentic collaboration with others.

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To circle back to that catch-all phrase, my belief in soccer’s capacity for change has grown tenfold since my time in Nicaragua with Fútbol Sin Fronteras. What is it that we really play for? What is it that I really coach for, even write for presently? I guess I boil it down to an innate belief in and passion for using the beautiful game to raise hope through creative teamwork, building reciprocal relationships based on global collaboration on and off the pitch, writing, and assists to pickup golazos that take on heightened meaning as we continue to dream, imagine, learn, and grow in our everyday lives.