Alex Auger has been playing with Calgary Street Soccer for two years, and will be joining team Canada to play in the Homeless World Cup in Santiago, Chile, Oct. 19 – 26, 2014.
Calgary Street Soccer is a volunteer-run program that spans worldwide, with 52 countries represented at the Homeless World Cup, which is hosted in a different country each fall.
The program is designed to help people get their lives back on track through the lessons learned and challenges faced while playing sports.
“The idea behind it is to give someone an avenue essentially to exercise and to rehabilitate their lives through sport,” said Peter Zorbas, president of Calgary Street Soccer.
“In our case, it’s soccer.”
Calgary’s homeless are invited to join volunteer coaches every Sunday at 2 p.m. from May to October at a school field in Bridgeland, which is just a ten-minute walk from the Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre.
After the two-hour practices, the players are treated to a barbecue dinner.
Calgary Street Soccer encourages those who come out to the field to return every week to not only play soccer, but also to socialize, another major component of the program.
“I love the guys,” Auger said. “I love playing soccer with them and seeing everyone on the field.”
As incentive to come out on Sundays, the program is structured to provide a player with a pair of cleats at his or her third practice.
Kevin Scullion, who founded Calgary Street Soccer eight years ago, has witnessed the positive effects that soccer has on those who take the initiative to come out and play.
“We’re trying to teach and mentor life skills, and the guys love it and keep coming back,” Scullion said.
“Maybe it’s because of the ball, or maybe it’s because we treat them as equals.”
According to Zorbas, some players return because they see the advantages the program has to offer, while some may come back just to have fun. Either way, he sees a small victory in every practice.
“Even if they come out just once, that’s a success for us,” Zorbas said.
Players are expected to arrive on time, and to remain clean and sober while they are on the field, a program policy.
Interacting with teammates and coaches, adhering to disciplinary expectations, and following the street soccer rules all help to rehabilitate the players who come out on a regular basis.
“Promoting consistency and having a good attitude, and learning from sport. That’s the essence of the program,” said Zorbas.
“It’s all about learning, growing.
“We’re not giving people a handout, we’re trying to give them a hand up.”
Auger, who played soccer recreationally as a young boy, has recognized the positive effect of returning to the game through the street soccer program.
“It’s helped me grow. It’s helped me gain my confidence and rebuild my life,” Auger said.
In fact, Auger has been physically off the streets and rebuilding his life for almost one year, something that he attributes, in part, to his participation in the street soccer program.
Auger has missed only one practice in two years, and as a result of his dedication he is traveling with coach Scullion to Chile in October.
Calgary Street Soccer sends its most committed and enthusiastic player to the Homeless World Cup each year with Team Canada.
“I’m excited. It’s something I never thought I’d be able to do,” said Auger.
“I never thought I’d ever have an experience like this in my life.”
Philip Messinger, one of Auger’s soccer mates, journeyed to Poznan, Poland for the 2013 Homeless World Cup, and still comes out to the field as often as possible.
Messinger has found great inspiration from the program in cleaning up his life.
“I quit smoking cigarettes, I quit smoking marijuana, and I kicked a crack cocaine problem that I had before I came here,” Messinger said.
“It’s really inspired me to get clean and help myself.
“It’s taken the hopelessness out of homelessness.”
Scullion hopes that Auger and Messinger, and other players who pass through the program, will return as mentors to help coach practices and sustain enthusiasm in street soccer, a task that Auger says he will definitely undertake.
The program has actually inspired Auger to develop a dream for his future, a dream that he hopes will help others.
“I’m planning on getting my business running, and then I’ll have construction jobs for these guys, to get them out of this situation that I used to be in myself,” Auger said.
Zorbas hopes the program will help rehabilitate Calgary’s homeless for years to come with continued support from the community.
Calgary Street Soccer currently receives aide from the Calgary United Soccer Association (CUSA), in addition to other donations of money or equipment like used cleats.
With an increase in funding the program will be able to extend to more shelters in the city, and possibly provide transportation to indoor facilities through the winter, to operate year-round.
Determined to realize these goals, Zorbas works to increase awareness of the program.
“I know it works,” Zorbas said.
“I just have to grow it.”
For information about the organization and the Homeless World Cup, visit the Calgary Street Soccer website.