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'We're Like Brothers'

Through his global nonprofit, Ben Gucciardi ’05 ’06G is doing more than just giving disadvantaged children a chance to play soccer. He’s also offering them hope for a better future.
 
Their footwork is sharp, their passes crisp, their innate understanding of the artistry and flow of the beautiful game clearly apparent, if not fully developed.

Soccer is the world’s sport, and the handful of teenagers playing on this clover-covered field in Baltimore’s gritty east side come from all corners of the globe.

The boys wear their competitiveness, joy, and, in some cases, angst on the sweat-soaked sleeves of their blue T-shirts, the words “playing for change” written across the back. They are here, playing the game they love, only thanks to Soccer Without Borders (SWB), a nonprofit founded by Ben Gucciardi ’05 ’06G to use the game as “a vehicle for positive change, providing underserved youth a tool kit to overcome obstacles to growth, inclusion, and personal success.”

Part soccer club and part social institution for young refugees who have lost their families and left their friends, Soccer Without Borders offers new versions of both. It also provides structure, support, mentorship and, perhaps most importantly, hope.“We feel that soccer, as international language, is something that can help people relate, both to each other and the larger community,” Gucciardi, 29, says from Oakland, where the nonprofit is headquartered. “That was the key idea—that soccer could provide a platform that very few other things could.”

Baltimore is one of seven SWB locations in the United States, with each serving primarily refugees (there also are chapters in Uganda and Nicaragua). On this sweltering, sticky June afternoon, the play is spirited, the banter friendly, the smiles prevalent. For at least a couple of hours, the boys are not only freed of their worries, but inspired to move beyond them, too. “I can’t imagine my life without Soccer Without Borders,” says Warshan Hussin, a 16-year-old Iraqi native. “I came here and didn’t understand anything. They teach us everything about life here. We learn English. I didn’t have [anything] to do until I met these guys. Now I have something to do. I have a goal: graduate and go to college.”

Before sprinting back onto the field for the final minutes of practice, Hussin adds something in his impeccable English that he wants to make abundantly clear. “The biggest thing is, we play soccer.”
 

 
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ben Gucciardi played both baseball and basketball. But it was soccer that stuck. “In eighth grade I had a chance to go play soccer in Belgium,” he says. “It was the first time I’d been outside of the U.S. Just seeing what a central piece of the community soccer was there, the facilities and resources they had, there was something about it that stayed with me.”

When the time came, Gucciardi, who has extended family in the Philadelphia area, decided to head east for college, to Lehigh. But as Mountain Hawks coach Dean Koski recalls, nothing about Gucciardi’s early days with the program suggested he was going to be the next Pele.“When he first came here, I thought it was going to be very hard for Ben to see the playing field,” Koski recalls. “He was probably the slowest player on the team—but he was the most effective player on the team. Ben was a hard-working, industrious, tenacious player. Every time he was out on the field he made an impact.”

A defensive midfielder, Gucciardi can’t even remember if he ever scored a goal. That doesn’t surprise his coach, who says the player’s contributions were enormous, even if his points tally wasn’t. “He was a leader without wearing a captain’s armband,” Koski says. “When he spoke up, people listened. He was thoughtful, intelligent. Ben was mature beyond his years. He was very highly regarded by his teammates and looked up to because of his work ethic and his commitment.”

After graduating with a degree in international relations and economics, Gucciardi received a presidential scholarship that allowed him to stay another year and earn a master’s in education. It proved to be a crucial year—the one during which he figured out what he’d do with his life. “That was the time when I started putting together Soccer Without Borders,” he says. “I had a job at the library and I would spend my day reading and researching and thinking about what Soccer Without Borders would be like.”

Gucciardi had spent previous summers working at Jamestown Community Center in the Mission District of San Francisco. There, he saw how sports programs could make a positive impact on kids from the largely low-income, Latino neighborhood. “That was incredibly influential for me,” he says. “I knew I wanted to work with youth, and I knew I wanted to work in underserved communities.”

With an idea in hand—using soccer as a platform to engage and influence young people’s lives— Gucciardi began seeking funding. He found it through Lehigh’s Eureka! competition series, now housed in the Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity, and Innovation. Gucciardi was awarded $5,000 for winning the inaugural social entrepreneurship prize.“We basically created the award because of him,” says Todd Watkins, the institute’s executive director. “It seemed to be such an interesting and unique thing that didn’t seem quite appropriate to put in the same category as for-profit entrepreneurship.”

By 2006, then, Gucciardi had two Lehigh degrees, seed money and a vision. It was time to take a shot. 
 

 
“We’ve had some intense moments,” says Jill Pardini, director of the Baltimore program. An intense woman herself (no whistle hangs around her neck; two fingers in her mouth and a deep breath of air is all she needs to announce her presence with authority), Pardini is chatting with onlookers while the boys practice throw-ins and headers. “Some players and parents of teams we’ve played have been very xenophobic. Making fun of [our kids’] accents, telling them to go back where they came from. But everyone here has each other’s back. We’ve become a community, one kid at a time, one family at a time, one handshake at a time, one coffee at a time.”

That’s precisely what Gucciardi imagined when he founded SWB in Oakland in November of 2006. For its first three years, he worked off and on at Jamestown, or consulting with other sports programs, earning enough money to travel for months at a time. The Nicaraguan and Ugandan programs were born from those trips.

Gucciardi was able to make a “modest” living for himself working full-time for SWB beginning in 2009. Then, like a teenager who sprouts three inches in one summer, SWB seemingly took off overnight, growing from a mere flicker in Gucciardi’s mind to an organization that this year will serve nearly a thousand 5- to 18-year-olds worldwide with 15 full-time employees and a budget of $602,000. “Ben has the most unique ability I’ve ever seen to connect with people from any culture, any background, any walk of life,” says SWB’s executive director, Mary McVeigh ’07, who met Gucciardi while she was an assistant coach for the Lehigh women’s soccer team. “A lot of the kids’ names are pretty hard to understand or remember. He makes sure to call every single kid by name, and that’s whether he’s known the kid six years or just met them. I was in Egypt with him a couple years ago, and we’re meeting girls from Cairo who have Arabic names. I’m struggling to pronounce them, and he’s calling everyone by name. He really values each person, and he wants each person to have a voice and a place.”

SWB runs three types of programs: camps, seasonal clinics, which run for at least 20 weeks, and core programs (like Oakland and Baltimore), which run 40 weeks a year, at least three days a week. In all formats the framework rests on five components: soccer play and instruction, off-field workshops and lessons, civic engagement, cultural exchange, and team-building. “The idea is that we’re really trying to develop the whole person as opposed to just a soccer player,” Gucciardi says. “It’s taking a more holistic approach.”

Since 2007, 95 percent of SWB’s Oakland participants have graduated from high school, compared to the city-wide graduation rate of 60 percent. The achievement is no accident: By SWB rule, if kids want to play in the games, they must maintain a minimum GPA of 2.0. To help them do so, each SWB core group emphasizes academic success and employs an academic adviser to support youth with their studies and monitor their academic progress.“We’ve seen that the support network the program creates—the insistence on kids doing well in school—works,” Gucciardi says. “When kids start to drop out, the coaches are over at their house bugging them.”

Given the program’s success, recruiting new participants never has been a problem. Word of the free soccer program travels fast in refugee circles, and more often than not, the word is good.

Kaltum Suleman was a young Eritrean who spoke little to no English when Pardini, then working as a volunteer for the Refugee Youth Project, stopped by his Baltimore home. He was among the chapter’s first participants. “I’d be a very different person—maybe a gangster” without SWB, says the 16-year-old, who spent most of his early years in an Ethiopian refugee camp. “I would hang out with the wrong people. But this program leads me to a good position. There were some people who were in this program who were good people, and then they left and became gangsters. Right now they are in prison. This program is like my second family.”

SWB’s success—its impact on participants and its global growth—has been stunning, and the world of sport has taken note. SWB is one of four organizations in 125 countries to be nominated for Beyond Sport’s Sport for Social Inclusion Award, which was to be handed out in Philadelphia in September.

And Gucciardi says his phone rings weekly with calls from people wanting him to expand his program to their city or country. “I think that there is no limit to how many places we can be,” he says. “There are a lot of amazing people doing this work that want to build the organization and see it succeed. We’re very lucky to have that kind of commitment from people. For me the most powerful part of it is the relationships with the kids that I’ve developed. I still do a lot of coaching here in Oakland and in the international programs. The relationships with the kids and other staff members keep me going and motivated.”

So, too, do the success stories, of which there are many. Take Birendra Rai, 16, a leader of the Baltimore group. His parents are from Bhutan, but he was born in a Nepalese refugee camp. He came to America in 2008 not knowing a word of English, and not knowing where to turn for support. Somehow, he found SWB.

And ultimately, he says, that changed everything.“This program has a lot to do with almost everything that I have achieved until now,” he says. “I’ve come to realize that the world is big and everyone has different opinions and different thinking styles. We learn about each other and [our] cultures, and we come to value each other’s culture, what they believe in. That’s what this club teaches all of us—to be a person who understands what’s around you.

“Before I came here I didn’t even know that Congo existed. Now some of them are my best friends. I know their culture, they know mine. I know their families, they know mine. We’re like brothers.”

Story by Mike Unger

Posted on Friday, October 18, 2013

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