LIVERMORE (CBS SF) — Young women from the Bay Area who have been spreading the gospel of soccer, education and empowerment to girls in poverty-stricken villages in South America are seeing the fruits of their labor multiply in unexpected ways.
Livermore-based non-profit Girls Soccer Worldwide draws female volunteers from the high school and club soccer teams in the Tri-Valley area to service missions in Paraguay, where fútbol is king, but also where – as in other developing countries – fútbol feminino has no queen to champion aspiring girls. They don’t have the same, if any, opportunities to play soccer as boys do, and education can be a financial burden that disproportionately impacts young girls.
The non-profit was started by Livermore resident and Argentina native Walter Pratte, who lived and played semi-pro soccer for years in neighboring Paraguay.
Pratte was struck by the hospitality of people in his adopted town of Coronel Bogado, as he felt he was given so much by those whose own living conditions were bleak. When he emigrated to the U.S., he vowed, “If I was able to make a way for myself [in the U.S.] I would return to give back creating a path for others to do the same.”
Over the years, Pratte became a successful youth soccer coach; he currently serves as Assistant Director of Coaching for the Pleasanton Rage Girls Soccer Club and coaches the Rage team in the Women’s Premier Soccer League.
He saw how the girls he coached were uplifted by soccer and the opportunities afforded to them in the affluent Tri-Valley area, contrasting it with his experience in Paraguay. Together with his wife, Pamela Jacobsen, and a group of his teenage and adult players, Pratte returned to Coronel Bogado in 2015 on a service trip to bring soccer equipment, clothes and school supplies, while preaching for equal opportunity for young girls who were routinely shunned from participating in soccer.
Seeing a group of positive, strong young women come from the U.S. to teach girls soccer and advocate for them was an awakening for members of the community.
“The mindset that girls don’t belong on the soccer field is changing one family at a time, creating opportunities for girls to gain life skills gained in sports,” said Jacobsen. “More girls are showing up to the field with the support of their family and not feeling shame wanting to be a ‘female soccer player.'”
What initially began as a service trip to help create equality and empowerment for girls, evolved into a struggle to also help them overcome the grip of poverty.
“We realized we can create space for an equal playing field, but the true reality these girls face would remain the same and we knew we wanted to create change that would last for generations to come,” said Pratte.
“We knew if we empowered the girls and women in this small town and ensured they have a pathway for long-term education, they would have the confidence needed to not only break cycles of poverty and rise above as a community together, but that voice would naturally transition to the field,” said Jacobsen.
Subsequent missions brought increased donations, additional focus on education for all, and interest from corporations such as SAP, which donated a number of laptops to set up the local school’s first computer lab, along with funding for high-speed internet access.
“Having access to computers and Wi-Fi for the first time at school, the windows of opportunities have become limitless,” said Pratte. “They have access to educational resources they haven’t had before. This is an impact for not only girls, but boys are benefiting from this as well. The idea is we can rise up boys and girls together, encouraging and showing them a bigger picture that when girls are uplifted, it benefits the entire community.”
The efforts by the non-profit have meant a metamorphosis for one young Coronel Bogado resident. As an 11-year-old in 2016, María Luján was the first person in line for the group’s arrival on the first mission in 2016; wide-eyed and ready to share her love of soccer with the visiting americanas.
She also comes from extreme poverty, living in a two-room house with dirt floors and wooden planks for walls, with a makeshift outhouse that offered little to no privacy. Despite her situation, she exuded gratitude and made an impression upon the visitors with her passion for the game, moving the teenage soccer players to take her under their wings.
María became the first recipient of the Girls Soccer Worldwide scholarship program, allowing her to stay in school along with donated school supplies. The group also built her – the only girl in her household – a small private bathroom. Last year, she traveled for the first time out of Paraguay, coming to Livermore with her new heroes and was able to live and train with the soccer players for several months.
Today, at age 14, María is a leading voice for change in her community and a driving force in the first organized female soccer team in her small town, Las Pioneras de Fútbol (Pioneers of Girls Soccer). She’s also become a fan of the U.S. Women’s National Team and her favorite player is former Cal star Alex Morgan.
Maria dreams of a brighter future and hopes others in her community follow suit.
“Now that I have learned how to dream big, I want to teach other girls to dream big, too,” she said. “Helping other girls to have more opportunities like me to play football and for them to dream big and continue to study.”
Other unexpected benefits to the community have also emerged.
While the intention was to uplift the next generation of female student-athletes, Girl Soccer Worldwide members saw their efforts also embolden the previous generation – the girls’ mothers.
Jacobsen cited Maria Lujan’s mother, Blanca, who initially was introverted and passive in her interactions with GSW members. But during the 2018 mission, Blanca had changed into a woman with a strong voice and presence; a transformation other women in the village would emulate.
“When asked what changed, she replied, ‘I realized I needed to be strong woman to show my daughter how to become a strong women herself.'” said Jacobsen. “What we see is, she also began to believe SHE deserves more.”
“The women in this small town are rallying around their daughters, lifting each other up,” said Pratte. “They are becoming a source of inspiration for these young girls, showing them the forgotten have value and are becoming agents of change together.”
For the Tri-Valley teenage and adult soccer players, their missions have also been life-changing.
“They are more appreciative of what they have, understanding the only difference between the girls there and here is just where they were born,” said Jacobsen.
“I have the courage, the bravery, to chase my dreams because of my experience in Coronel Bogado,” said University of Notre Dame graduate and former Irish goalkeeper Lexi Nicholas. “It’s as if I’d been sleep-walking, merely drifting through life and existing before I boarded the plane for Paraguay. But somehow, over the course of those eight days, I woke up. I became grounded and rooted in my truth. I became the most authentic version of myself. And thankfully, I have been able to bring her back with me.”
“You can really see the impact you make on all the kids you meet in each village you visit. The joy you see on all their faces after you meet them, it’s a feeling like no other,” said Foothill High School graduate Lucia Castañeda. They ask for your autograph, a picture, or just a conversation. It truly is the sweetest thing. You build such a great connection with them right off the bat, and you know they’ll never ever forget you and I know I will never forget them.”
“Paraguay changed my life in the best way possible. This was a trip of a lifetime in which I was truly able to discover who I am as a person and what really matters in life,” said Foothill student-athlete Allie Casey. “I believe the girls I met taught me more than I taught them. I want to work to make a difference and change the lives of many people the same way.”
For more information on Girls Soccer Worldwide and its upcoming fundraiser, visit girlssoccerworldwide.org/kicking-it-for-education