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Longtime friends Allison Phillips and Michaella Kumli have just returned from service as volunteer soccer coaches of indigenous children in Nicaragua. Allison is pictured in the town of Goyena, Nicaragua.

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Mission trip: Young teen girls coach soccer in rural Nicaragua
August 21st, 2013
By Tom Burke

Tackling life’s tough stuff has begun early for soon-to-be eighth graders Allison Phillips and Michaella Kumli. The longtime friends have just returned from service as volunteer soccer coaches of indigenous children in Nicaragua. Allison attends St. Stephen School. Michaella is a student at Convent of the Sacred Heart School. Their parents are Kathleen and James Phillips and Sue and Kurt Kumli.

Michaella and Allison have been playing soccer since kindergarten and became friends in fourth grade. The sport has been an important part of both their lives.

“It just became what we did,” the girls told Catholic San Francisco via an email they composed together. “It gave us something to focus on that was positive. Our team is like a second family because we all get along. So much of soccer is relying on each other.”

On the field they play the same positions – midfield, forward, and half back –“but Alli plays on the right and Michaella plays on the left,” they said.

“Soccer has taught us teamwork, and sportsmanship,” the girls said. “It also teaches you to ask for help.” Both made it clear with exclamation points that their favorite soccer player is Olympic gold medalist Alex Morgan.

Michaella and Allison already participate together in school charity programs and food drives as well as coach younger children in their soccer club.

The idea for the volunteer coaching trip came from one of their coaches who works with a nonprofit called ViviendasLeon, based in San Francisco and, according to its website, working “to alleviate rural poverty in Nicaragua.”

While the Spanish they have learned in school was an assist in communicating, onsite classes in the language and living with people who only spoke Spanish helped more, they said.

The children they coached numbered from 60 to100 each day and ranged in age from 5 to 15. “We used a mix of Spanish and hand signals,” the girls said. “We learned Spanish soccer vocabulary in class to help us out on the field.”

The routine for the eight-day trip was rigorous from rising at 6:45 a.m. to lunch at about 1 p.m. They also participated in agroforestry, an effort to create more sustainable land-use systems.

“We had to battle pigs who were trying to eat the plants that we were planting,” they said.

Allison and Michaella brought back strong images of living conditions in the town where they volunteered. “In Goyena people live in houses made from sheets of stacked metal and tarps,” they described. “They had dirt floors. Animals were so thin that you could see all their bones.”

They saw children playing next to a school by huge fields being sprayed with pesticides. “They didn’t even know that it was bad,” the girls said.

Allison and Michaella did not go to Goyena empty-handed. They brought shin guards, cleats, jerseys and soccer balls with them.

Allison sent out an email to her class and people responded with bags of donations. Michaella talked to people in her school directly and they, too, donated gear.

“We gave cleats to at least 60 kids. Everyone left with something. One boy put on his shin guards upside down, and we had to teach him how to use them. The last day the little kids asked if we were coming back tomorrow. It was really sad to say goodbye.” The girls exchanged email addresses with their host families’ children and expect to stay in touch.

Will the girls do something like this again? “Definitely yes,” they said. “It felt really good to help the people there. We also learned that you can’t trust the way the media portrays the country. The city gets talked about and as a tourist you only see the richer cities. You never hear about how poor the people are in the villages.”

“I realized we are not told about how other people live in the world. They have so much less than we do,” Allison said. “Kids there have ripped clothes. It makes you think about how we throw away the clothes we outgrow.”

“You don’t realize how much you have,” Michaella said. “Nicaragua has some of the poorest people in the world and it makes your own stuff not important.”

“It isn’t about material worth anymore,” they said together.



From August 23, 2013 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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