Purnell: Growing community, one soccer game at a time

Carissa PurnellFrom the Salinas Californian -- Since 2010, a free soccer program run out of the Cesar Chavez Library has taught young people the basics of the game, like passing and formation — and much more, including how to communicate and develop team rapport. Dubbed “Biblioteca Cesar Chavez Futbol Club,” [more information here (PDF)] the program was started by Carissa Purnell, the Salinas Library technology manager, with key assistance since the beginning from two CSUMB students.

It has become “an amazing thing,” says Purnell. In addition to playing soccer, “students develop English skills on the field, they develop writing skills through handouts and exercises, and they break territorial lines to join in a common cause.”

In the following interview, she describes how the club came to be and to grow, and the difference it’s making across the community.

Tell me about the CSUMB students behind it — what are their backgrounds and what brought them to this?

Anthony Velasquez and Craig Sterling are athletes who used soccer as their pathway to higher education. Each recognizes the value of athletics as an opportunity to gain admittance into the university setting. Originally they came to complete their community service hours, but fell in love with the students, their families and this community. They wanted to do more. They took the initiative to write and apply for grant funding to increase the capacity of the program. Although they had no experience with grant writing or fundraising, it was their commitment to the Alisal community that got funding from the Community Foundation of Monterey County to make this program what it is now. They took their love for the game and respect for education and shared them with the children and families on the East Side, not only to promote awareness but to truly increase the opportunity for these young players to develop their skills on and off the field. They have been working at my side for three years.

How did the program come together?

The program originally began in 2010. It was the World Cup (year) and I was confused about the influx of children in full soccer gear walking into the library — cleats, jerseys, flags, the whole nine yards. It wasn’t long until I realized they came to the library to watch the World Cup matches, which were streamed online. These little soccer fans did not have TVs or cable in their homes to watch their idols play the sport they love. The library became the gathering place for the community to watch the World Cup. Naturally they wanted to play, but it became an issue when balls started flying indoors. Rather than punish them, we took over the grassy patch outside the library and so it began. Gradually it grew until we realized we didn’t have space for 80 players. When the library closed for construction, we had to keep this program going, so we moved to Chavez Park on Madeira. We had more community members join. I applied for resources from Building Healthy Communities (BHC), and they offered paid stipends to the student athletes who wanted to coach. Salinas Futbol Central, owned by Maricela Cruz, donated equipment and supplies. Her son, Jose, volunteered to coach.

What’s your role?

I dove in the minute I took the kids outside to play. I began the program coaching and doing outreach to local student athletes, and did all the fundraising, resource development and marketing. I facilitated the volunteer process with the city, and provided equipment for little ones who didn’t have the resources to buy their own. I truly believe in the power of our own East Salinas community members to develop the programs and activities they recognize as needed for the youth in their neighborhoods. Often, all they need is a little support and encouragement to recognize they are the most valuable assets in this community. Their experiences, their shared commitment to the children, coupled with their unwavering faith and hope that we are contributing to building options and pathways for the kids in our community to pursue higher education, make healthy decisions, and develop a confidence and pride in their own voice and self. That makes them the key to the transformation of the East Side. I am here to do what my community asks of me.

Aside from the fun of playing soccer, what do you see as the benefits of a program like this?

As a student athlete myself, I know I would not have pursued higher education without soccer. It was through soccer I was able to travel. I was able to meet a diverse group of young women who were and continue to be my family. We spoke different languages, came from different backgrounds, but sports was the one thing we shared, and that was enough to develop relationships that truly lasted a lifetime. Often people criticize my pursuit of funding for sports in lieu of literacy programs but, in essence, this serves as a pathway to literacy. Students develop English skills on the field through communication, they develop writing skills through handouts and exercises, and they break territorial lines to join in a common cause. We hold high expectations for all our participants, and while conversations are focused on soccer, they often raise issues of violence, poverty and race. What an amazing thing — the soccer field serves as neutral territory to have conversations and engage in a dialogue with a team that has become a family.

How does someone join?

Everyone and anyone is welcome. Youth are invited to simply show up. The only form required is an emergency contact just in case we need to reach parents. We also welcome high school and college students who would like to receive their community service hours to come coach the little ones from their own community.

Anything else you’d like people to know?

This program belongs to the community. We receive donated cleats, jerseys, equipment and free bus passes for our participants. Mothers collect the water bottles and donate the money to the program for snacks. We are invited to birthday parties and have parents bringing us tamales and nopales from their homes to share. The last session, the CASP community police officers came out and actually played, in full gear. Never in my life would I have imagined a police officer on a soccer field. I was raised to fear the authorities, as so many of our residents are. I was delighted and surprised to see the pair conversing with our parents, laughing and running with our participants. After they left, a local paletero left his ice cream truck, and went out on cleats to join in. This is more than a soccer program, it’s a safe place for all members of families to come together with others to talk, share and become a part of the community.

Interview by Spencer Critchley

Download the attached flyer to learn more about Biblioteca Cesar Chavez Futbol Club.

Salinas Californian
News Item Publication Date: 
Saturday, July 20, 2013