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.