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Canada's 2011 Women's Homeless World Cup Team. This image is courtesy of Paul Gregory and Street Soccer Canada.
I spoke to Kara Lang in April about Street Soccer Canada for a project outside of AllWhiteKit and RedNationOnline. Upon the eve of the 10th Annual Homeless World Cup in Mexico City October 6-14, it’s a perfect time to revisit her insight on the women’s program in Toronto. Here’s a condensed version of the conversation.
Since September 2011, weekly indoor soccer matches in a western Toronto recreation centre have become a solace for women living in the local shelter system. They are some of the most marginalized individuals in the city, battling poverty, mental health concerns, various forms of addictions and abuse, and/or other socioeconomic effects. In spite of their circumstances, they’ve developed a familial bond with fellow players brought together by Street Soccer Canada (SSC), “a grassroots program with sport as social inclusion as its focus. Its aim is to engage and connect with marginalized shelter users and individuals that have been isolated and are on the fringes, using the positive power of sport to enrich and empower.”
Paul Gregory, who founded SSC in 2003, meshed his interest in soccer with his 16 years of experience in the public and non-profit sectors tackling issues of homelessness and poverty. What started with a men’s team that later represented Canada at the 2004 Homeless World Cup in Gothenburg, Sweden now has programs in Calgary, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, in addition to women’s teams in the latter two cities.
Among the coaches in Toronto is Kara Lang, a nine year veteran of the Canadian Women’s Soccer Team, who is also the SSC technical director. Following a successful national team career that includes representing her country at the 2003 and 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cups and 2008 Beijing Olympics, Kara is currently a soccer analyst at Rogers Media Inc. and passionately volunteers her time with SSC.
Melissa Tan: How are the sessions going?
Kara Lang: It’s a little bit tough because we have to depend on the holiday schedule of the community centre. For the most part, other than Christmas, New Years and Easter, we’ve been every Mondays since September . We’ll run a session whether it’s one person that shows up or eight or whatever.
MT: Do you usually start off with drills and then head into a recreational game?
KL: Mhmm, it’s always a bit of a warmup. A lot of the women aren’t physically active at all throughout the week, or some of them had never been physically active before, certainly not any part of an organized team. We’re trying to get them into certain habits of being healthy and safe. They get warmed up, then some drills, some first touch. We work on whatever they want to work on.
A lot of the time it’s finishing that they like to do; they like to shoot. We usually put Billy in net, he’s the men’s team coach; they love shooting on Billy. He’s quite the trash talker, too, so it makes for a lot of fun.
Then we divide up the teams depending on numbers and we just play a scrimmage for an hour, hour and a half. We always have to be cautious to take breaks because everyone’s at different fitness levels and some of the women’s health isn’t the best. When one person needs a break, everyone needs a break. We’re trying to instill that idea of team, which is also new for a lot of the women. It’s basically two hours of fun, two hours of freedom.
MT: It’s like there are two parts to the equation: trying to instill healthy habits in their daily lives and also building trust because it’s difficult to break down their personal barriers.
KL: Absolutely, there’s a huge difference between the first few sessions and now where the women are totally comfortable with us and talking about their outside lives and sharing their stories with us. And, accepting advice from us even about soccer.
In terms of healthy habits outside, for some of them it’s not just that one day a week anymore. It was only a few weeks ago when some of them were asking to take some soccer balls home to go to the park and train on their own. They want to get better, especially with those who haven’t played before; it’s that learning curve that they’ve seen and how quickly they’ve started to get the hang of it. Then they just wanted more and wanted to get better. They’re goal setting and recognizing that they’re good at something that can be fun. I think for a lot of them, it’s extremely encouraging.
We’re encouraging hydration and drinking water before they come, to continue drinking water throughout the day and discouraging things like soft drinks during the game.
We’ve seen other progressions as well. Some of them have moved out of the shelters; it’s less so with the women because the program is new, so more so with the men. There are many men in the program who have been [with Street Soccer Canada] for years. They keep coming once they find stable housing, which is something we encourage. You’re a Street Soccer player for life regardless of where you end up. We want that; we want to encourage people to better their lives and better their living situations. Once you’ve experienced living on the streets and come and joined Street Soccer, because you’re living in a shelter or living on the street doesn’t mean that you aren’t still part of the family. Some of them come back for years.
With some of the women, maybe they’ve moved to different shelters or moved into their own apartments, which is amazing to see, but they still come back. They recognize the value that it has in their lives no matter what position they’re in.
MT: You’ve described the National Team as your second family. It also works in the same way for the Street Soccer women.
KL: That’s exactly what we’re trying to create: that sense of community, camaraderie. It can be very lonely. Even living in the shelters sometimes the women don’t interact with one another or don’t find opportunities to work together. Bringing them into this environment where it’s fun but team work is extremely important. Those are skills that people will take with them where ever they go, whether they’re on the field or not. It’s also extremely comforting to be a part of a team and to be a part of something, not to mention something that’s just so fun.
MT: How was the initial player recruitment process? Was it a difficult time connecting with shelters?
KL: It’s tough. Having two men, Paul and Billy, as hard as they work and as successful they’ve been on the men’s side, it’s a bit tough for them to break down those barriers and initially, especially for women, to trust these two men who are strangers coming into their shelter and being like, “Come play soccer”. It takes a bit of coaxing.
A lot of critics say that these people have much bigger problems than playing soccer like, “What is playing soccer going to do for them?” But people don’t realize just how much of an impact that it can have. Those two hours a week can be that little bit of happiness that they need or that little bit of motivation that they need to better their lives or that break from the stress that they face during the day.
Having a woman on staff, I’ve been told, has helped a little bit. Just going into the shelters now and they’re seeing a woman talking to them and encouraging them to get active. It’s hard: there’s a lot of red tape, there are a lot of boundaries, there are a lot of rules. You can’t just pick people off the street and cart them off to a field.
We did a lot of work with [different shelters] trying to find women from there to play. Many of them are dealing with mental health issues. You know that they want to be [at practices] and they’re excited about it, but you’re not necessarily surprised when they don’t show up on the day because they’ve got so many things going on. Those are the circumstances that add to the inconsistencies of our numbers.
MT: Have you heard some of their personal stories and what they’ve been through?
KL: Absolutely. A few players in particular have really opened up. It might be surprising to some people, but I find so much inspiration, especially with one of the women and her story. She’s a mother of two, and the amount of strength and resilience that she has is unbelievable. To see her and to see how she interacts and how passionate she is about soccer, it’s really beautiful. You sit down with her and see just how dark her past has been. The fact that she can still be standing there and just be this beautiful person, it’s pretty amazing.
In some ways, sometimes I think that I’m benefiting more than the players. It’s just the way it goes. You never really know what someone’s been through.
MT: Have you talked to your players about the potential of going to Mexico for the Homeless World Cup?
KL: Yeah, we’ve mentioned it, but we don’t want to promise anything. But the fact that it’s the only other women’s team in Canada [aside from Vancouver], there’s a really good chance that some of our players will get to go. That’s the whole point of having a team in Toronto was to spread across the country.
Some of the players know there’s potential for them to go to Mexico and they’re extremely excited about it. Representing your country in anything is, and I know first hand, a huge honour and so exciting. Just the chance to travel, too, is pretty cool.
I wasn’t in Paris, France [for last year's Homeless World Cup], but the footage that I saw from the tournament looks like such an amazing event. Talking to the players that were there, I spoke to the Vancouver team during [CONCACAF Women's Olympic] Qualifying, and heard their stories about that event and even people who have been to Homeless World Cups in previous years who are still coming back. You can only go to, I think it’s two, but I don’t think you can go back-to-back years. Even though the players know that they can’t go to the World Cup, they’re still a part of the program, which shows the kind of impact that it’s had on their lives. As much as the World Cup is the end goal, ideally, whether or not you go to the World Cup or not at the end of the day doesn’t really matter; it’s that day-to-day or week-to-week experience of coming out and playing that really matters for a lot of them.
MT: What sort of call to action would you put out for people wanting to help Street Soccer Canada?
KL: Donations are huge. [It adds to] our ability to run the program, provide the resources for our players and to do the outreach. Like I’ve said, that’s probably our biggest challenge- getting out there and convincing people that this could really be a positive thing in the lives of women and men. You do need to convince them at first; it’s almost hard to explain and hard to convince them that two hours a week of soccer could really change their lives when they’re dealing with some really heavy issues. But all it really takes is for them to come out once and see it.
Just having the ability to do that outreach, get to the shelters. It’s hard work and it takes time and energy. And raising awareness about it. The more that the shelters know about it, the more the City of Toronto knows about it. It can only benefit the program.
MT: And you guys are volunteer based?
KL: Yeah. There are paid positions; I’m a volunteer. I’m at a point where Street Soccer is something I was aware of as a player for a long time and it was something I wanted to get involved in, but my schedule as a player was ridiculous, so I really couldn’t. Now that I have the ability, time wise, if I can do it then I will. I don’t think I’m comfortable for them to pay me at this point.
MT: Maybe backing up a bit for a second, how did you initially get involved with Street Soccer Canada?
KL: I read quite a bit about them. I was speaking at an Ontario Soccer Association event in August  and they did a presentation to raise awareness about the program. I approached them afterwards and just told them how much I admired what they were doing and that I wanted to get involved. I was just like, “Tell me what I can do”.
Initially, a spokesperson perspective is what they first envisioned and thought that that’s what I wanted to do. I’m more than happy to do that. I really believe in this program, so I can talk about it for days. I was like, “We need a team in Toronto,” so I wanted a bit more of an active role. Nobody else was coaching a women’s team [in Toronto], so I took on that position.
MT: What’s your favourite experience with the team thus far?
KL: It might sound bad because it’s not soccer related necessarily. At Christmas time we took them all out for brunch. Of course this never would have happened if it wasn’t for soccer and the team environment. Just picking them up at the shelter and them walking out. They all looked so beautiful; they were dressed to the nines; they were so excited. That was really special because you could just tell that that moment meant a lot to them. It was nice to see them all enjoying a meal together outside of the shelter.
We watched a soccer game on TV; Arsenal was playing and the women were so into the soccer game. Then they were talking about the game we played last week and were comparing some of the things. Billy, the men’s team coach, is pretty dirty; he likes to pull jerseys, so they were going on about that. It was fun to sit back for a second. It was a really positive experience for everybody. It wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the experiences we’ve had on the field.
MT: Even for them to see the women’s team playing on television might have been encouraging as well because you generally see the men’s games.
KL: Exactly. When I left, I was in Vancouver for two weeks for Olympic Qualifying, I was like, “Watch these games.” And I’d encourage them to watch the Olympics, absolutely. Any bit of inspiration is always a good thing to see, especially women being empowered like that, it’s going to be motivational.
MT: Team Haiti and Cuba, they’ve got quite a story about how they got to Olympic Qualifying.
KL: We talked about it a little bit. To hear about the struggles [of the Haitian and Cuban women] with just acquiring uniforms and things like that, our players could relate. It was pretty interesting and, again, inspiring; they’re representing their country. That’s something that these women could have an opportunity to do as well.
MT: What are you most passionate about, whether it’s Street Soccer Canada or otherwise?
KL: Sharing the benefits of soccer. I’ve been so fortunate to be a part of such an amazing game for so long. It’s shaped my life and it’s shaped the person that I am. I recognize that the benefits go beyond competing for medals and beyond playing professionally or representing your country.
Whether you’re playing pick up soccer on the street or co-ed soccer in an organized league or street soccer, the benefits there of teamwork and goal setting are experienced by everybody. It doesn’t matter what level you’re playing at. The ability to share that with people on every playing level [is important to me] and to push the women’s game forward in our country so that more young girls can experience it.
Canada’s Women’s Homeless World Cup team was drawn into Group B alongside Brazil, England, Argentina, India, Nigeria and Kyrgyzstan.
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