In 1988, our Program Director, Stephen, was working as a recording engineer in Nayarit when he heard about a job opening in a tiny town just southwest of Monterrey. "There was a community center that had been worn down to nothing, and somebody needed to come build it back up and hand it back to the community," Stephen said.
Despite the fact that Stephen, a Canadian citizen, had never been to Central Mexico, he felt compelled to volunteer for the job.
His wife Marcela, who grew up in Nayarit and worked as a professor at a local university, felt a similar draw.
"When we were coming to Central Mexico for the first time, I felt like I was coming back to my home," she remembered.
The young couple settled in and began reaching out to their new neighbors. "At first it was hard because they did not know us, but little by little we started to know them," said Marcela. "We would go house by house meeting people, getting to know them and inviting them to join our community."
As their bonds with the community grew stronger, the idea of leaving became unimaginable. Stephen still chuckles when he remembers his original task was to come to this small town for just two years. "We fell in love with this place and the people, and we've been here 30 years now," he said.
Over the years, Stephen and Marcela have grown their small community center of 80 members into a full-blown service program that offers something for the entire local community. Their most popular program, Saved by Soccer, teaches children how to play the sport while providing a safe alternative to the gangs and drug cartels that ensnare so many young people in the community.
"Soccer develops a lot of skills. You need discipline in your eating, habits, thinking — it changes your mentality. It's the same skills you need to be a good participant in society and to have success in life," said Stephen.
Today, Stephen and Marcela run the program alongside their children Elisa, Peter, and Timothy — all three were born in the same small town in La Laguna. Elisa is particularly involved with the Saved by Soccer initiative, and her husband is the coach of one of the youth teams.
"We've had parents come to us and say, 'I have no idea what you're doing with my kid but it's so much more than soccer, because he has changed so much!'" said Elisa. Children who grew up angry or depressed by the violence in their homes are now happy and constantly smiling.
Elisa attributes much of the program's success to its community-centric roots. "These children come from families involved in drug violence, but they come here and receive comfort. They find support and a second family in us. That's something that's very different," she said.
The program focuses on strengthening entire families, offering counseling for parents, daycare for younger siblings and advocacy for children who don't have anyone else on their side.
"We visit them in their schools, take them out to lunch and talk to their teachers. By getting involved in their studies, it shows we care about them and are cheering for them," said Elisa. "Sometimes all it takes is somebody saying, 'Hey, even though your dad and your mom can't be here, we are here with you."
The Saved by Soccer program also offers English lessons, as well as other ways to broaden one's horizons. Elisa said, "Some of these kids haven't ever had the chance to travel out of their little town, not even to the next big city over, which isn't all that far. So we've started taking them to tournaments elsewhere, which has been really great for them."
The youth teams have excelled in tournament play, coached by Elisa's husband, Paco, and her younger brother, Peter. A naturally stoic 23-year-old, Peter can't help but be excited when speaking about his team. "In 10 months, we have received 10 first-place titles, and our first goal is to be champions of the state," he said proudly.
For players from such a small town, a state championship means more than winning bragging rights or a shiny medal. Many Saved by Soccer players have earned athletic scholarships to universities, allowing them to dream bigger than they ever thought possible.
That's a fitting legacy for Stephen and Marcela, who readily admit that Saved by Soccer's success is already beyond anything they could have imagined.
"We just wanted to reach our local kids!" said Stephen. "Now our own kids are taking over the program and running with it — they've caught the vision and they're going to take it farther than I ever dreamed. I can see them doing great things."
Learn more at savedbysoccer.com