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Hot, thirsty, taco-seeking Ariel Garcia-Chavez, Salvador Zuniga-Torres and Christian Oropeza-Hernandez gathered around a table perched at the edge of a soccer field after their Maya soccer team had just finished a match at the Capital Area Soccer Leagues Friendship Cup late Saturday morning.
The lush green, carefully manicured CASL fields on Perry Creek Road where they had been playing on all morning were a far cry from the makeshift spaces they are accustomed to in their neighborhood leagues.
Theres a lot of rocks and sand, Garcia-Chavez, a fourth-grader at Oak Grove Elementary in Raleigh, said about the field where his team plays on South Saunders Street near downtown Raleigh.
Zuniga-Torres, who is 8, said pretty much the same thing about the field where his team plays in Knightdale.
Rocks, dirt, theres barely any grass. Sometimes I wish I had goggles, said Zuniga-Torres who attends Lockhart Elementary in Knightdale. But we get used to it.
Oropeza-Hernandez, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at River Bend Elementary in Raleigh said Saturday was not the first time he had visited the CASL soccer complex, but it was his first time actually playing on the fields.
Its cool because its better than the fields we play on, he said.
The Maya team members were among the hundreds of youngsters who were wowed by their first-ever experience of playing at the CASL fields in North Raleigh as part of the first annual Friendship Cup. The inaugural event hosted nearly a dozen teams from all over the Triangle with the goal of promoting diversity, fair play and education in the regions soccer community. Winners and losers alike at the days end all received a medal and a taco.
A long-running mission
The events theme, Unity in Diversity, summed up the mission, vision and goal of the CASL Friendship Cups organizers.
When Charlie Slagle was hired as CASLs chief executive officer 11 years ago, he said he wanted to get as much diversity as possible among the leagues participants. Its been a slow process, but Slagle and CASLs partners are starting to see results. About 90 percent of the youngsters who participated in Saturdays event were Hispanic, along with youngsters from white, African-American and other underrepresented communities.
We wanted to get people who normally arent out here, Slagle said about Saturdays event.
Ramon Gallardo, who coaches the Maya team, said the league is starting to see a lot more diversity now than it did in the past years.
Its just growing, he said. The mission is to get kids off the street and away from drugs. Most of the kids would never have this opportunity. The main goal is to get the kids to go to college. If we can do that then we are not just changing the kids life we are changing the entire familys life. Many of these kids are first-generation Americans.
Derek Teel, a former CASL coach who now coaches soccer with the Boys & Girls Clubs in Raleigh, said when he first started working with the organization six years ago the level of diversity was about 4 percent African-American and Hispanic.
Now its about 15 percent or 20 percent, Teel said.
Police sponsor 4 teams
It was nearly a year ago when Slagle, Gallardo, Teel and others formed a committee to create more inclusion to promote diversity, education and community partnerships in youth soccer. Along with the Boy & Girls Clubs, CASL partnered with the Raleigh Police Department, which also had teams participating in the Friendship Cup on Saturday.
The police-sponsored, Raleigh Organized Community Kids Soccer, or ROCKS, has four teams with about 60 kids participating.
One of the coaches, Raleigh police detective Sgt. T.A. Frattini, said the police partnership with CASL enables officers to form lasting relationships with families.
It bridges gaps, she said. Its really been successful at that. It just made me realize that we reached out and formed a bond.
In addition to providing free space for the event, CASL also provided equipment to the teams and all other financial costs, such as entry fees.
Its all about social inclusion and education, said Ron Sanyal, a CASL coach who lives in Raleigh. This provides opportunities for at-risk kids and the underprivileged. Many of these kids have never played on such a nice field. It makes them feel part of the mainstream community. We only have one condition. The children have to stay in school. Thats our real goal to educate the children. Soccer is the way to attract them. One of these kids could go to college with a soccer scholarship.
One child who has her heart and skills set on a soccer scholarship is Yasmin Ramirez, a 14-year-old ninth-grader who attends Central High School in Butner. Ramirez was the only girl on the R. Pahuatlan team from Durham on Saturday and one of the few girls participating in the CASL Friendship Cup. Ramirez, who modestly described herself as one of the stars on her school team, said playing with boys makes her a better player because its more challenging. She hopes to play well enough one day to land a scholarship to college.
Playing here today is really good, she said. Im learning to get better.