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The universal language of soccer




Driven by a desire to live in a world where children have the opportunity to reach their full potential despite economic and educational roadblocks, Ben Gucciardi ’05, ’06G uses soccer to serve as a universal language for those living in the midst of disease, poverty and conflict.

Gucciardi is the founding director of Soccer Without Borders, a non-profit organization based in San Francisco, that works locally and internationally to help young people develop their bodies, voices and minds.

“The mission of the organization is to use soccer as a vehicle for positive change in the lives of marginalized youth,” Gucciardi says.

The universal language

The Soccer Without Borders program combines soccer instruction and play with arts-based, life-skills education.

“Basically, the idea of the organization is two fold,” Gucciardi says. “One is developing soccer for soccer’s sake because there are a lot of benefits of being a part of a team and having the experience of connecting with adults.”

Gucciardi also uses soccer as a hook to provide children with a forum to discuss social issues they face off the field.

“If you travel around most of the world you see people speaking of soccer as a religion, as a universal language, Gucciardi says, “Using that interest that people bring to the game to create space for dialogue for social issues.”

Since the program began in 2006, Gucciardi’s organization has reached out to a total of 137 coaches and educators in six countries, including Uganda, El Salvador, Nicaragua and South Africa. It also supports programs in the economically challenged neighborhoods of the Bay Area in San Francisco.

Using soccer as a tool for youth development has allowed Gucciardi to educate and offer life skills to children through workshops focusing on leadership, youth development, effective communication, and HIV/AIDS: Helping Your Community Stay Safe.

”I think in order to drive social change on a grassroots level effectively you have to be doing work you really love,” Gucciardi says, “because it is exhausting work and it requires great patience.”

A winning idea

For Gucciardi, Soccer Without Borders began as a college project, but soon grew into a crusade-driven social entrepreneurship initiative based on his passion for help the economically and socially disadvantaged.

“I think there is a feeling that existing solutions aren't working, or aren't working well enough,” Gucciardi says, “and people are trying to go to the drawing board and think about new solutions to old problems.”

It was that frustration that prompted Gucciardi to action. With a pencil in hand, Gucciardi, along with fellow classmates Kyle Hartman ’06, and Justin McLennan ’06G, saw unlimited possibilities to take advantage of soccer’s worldwide popularity.

Their idea for Soccer Without Borders opened doors for other Lehigh University students interested in the idea of making a change through social entrepreneurship.

The group became the first-ever Social Entrepreneurship Division Winner in 2006 The Joan F. and John M. Thalheimer ’55 Student Entrepreneurs Competition, which is designed to promote a practical knowledge, understanding, and enthusiasm for all aspects of entrepreneurial undertaking and to promote a creative entrepreneurial spirit on the part of students.

Social change at the grassroots

Professor Bruce Moon of the department of international relations, a former mentor of Gucciardi, says there is momentum for entrepreneurship at Lehigh—one with a social dimension that Gucciardi knows all too well.

This past April, Gucciardi served as Lehigh’s entrepreneur-in-residence and spoke to students in entrepreneurship and international relations courses.

Giving students new outlets and resources for their entrepreneurial spirit is the first step in driving social change on a grassroots level, Gucciardi says.

“When you think about people like Mohammed Yunus who started the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and encouraged the microfinance revolution, you realize you need to channel resources to people with creative ideas and passion to help their communities,” says Gucciardi.

Moon, who specializes in international political economy, basic human needs provisions, and democratization in poor countries, jumped at the chance to have one of his former students serve as a role model for change.

“Ben has done exactly what many of my students hope to do—change the world, albeit a little at a time,” Moon says. “They need to know that that is possible and be encouraged to try.”

Gucciardi says that Lehigh is making a push to encourage social entrepreneurship and is proud that Soccer Without Borders can serve as an example of how social initiatives can be fostered on campus.

Allowing students to see the successful products of social entrepreneurship directly correlated to Lehigh can open a lot of doors for many of the university’s current students, Moon says.

“Highlighting the opportunities available to students is an important part of that,” Moon says, “Ben represents the first example of what can come from such an initiative. His presence sends a powerful message that innovation and energy can bring about change.”

--Madelyn King ’08

Posted on Wednesday, April 16, 2008

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