Nobody expects international service work to be easy, but in 1988, the idea of launching a charitable outreach in a tiny town at the very southern part of Coahuila was particularly challenging.
For starters, the entire town was trapped in poverty. Even today, it's fairly common for workers to make just 900 pesos a week — the equivalent of roughly $46 USD. While two-income families are becoming even more common stateside, the residents of Coahuila at large often need several incomes just to survive.
To make ends meet, many of town’s citizens felt they only had two options: relying on their children to contribute to the family income or turning to the lucrative violence of the drug cartels. Of course, the financial upside of working for the drug cartels had a massive downside.
"When we arrived, most areas within Coahuila had the highest drug addiction rate in all of Mexico — 15 percent of the population was addicted to heroin," said Stephen, who ultimately alongside his wife Marcella settled in central Coahuila setting up an outreach for the local communities.
Marcela added, "The first 20-some funerals we attended were for young people, and it really made us angry. It was a good place for the cartels to hide."
The young couple realized if they had any hope of making an impact in Coahuila, they had to address the city's drug problem. They began working with local rehab centers, reaching out to addicts and watching them progress, only to relapse when they left treatment.
That vicious cycle gave Stephen a "lightbulb moment."
"We recognized that even though rehab is great, prevention is even better. And it was then that we started focusing on the kids," he said.
Stephen was no stranger to the uniting power of sports, but he'd grown up in Canada where hockey was the national pastime. Unfortunately, ice rinks are few and far between in rural Mexico. So Stephen and Marcela organized their first soccer team.
"We were called the Broncos, and those players were like broncos. They fought all the time — so much that we got kicked out of the league in our first season!" Stephen remembered. "I began to get to know the guys and get them out of the drug culture. We helped plug them into schools, churches, and a better family life. The team came back the next year with a different name and made the playoffs."
One team turned into two, then three, and eventually Stephen and Marcela were running an entire league with more than 50 teams. As their soccer program grew, so did their reputation in the community.
Ultimately, Stephen negotiated with the Mexican Football Federation to host a Third Division football (soccer) team."Once Stephen got that Third Division soccer team, people started looking at us as if we were doing something good for the town," said Marcela.
At this time, Stephen and Marcela also noticed a shift in the way children spoke about their own goals. "They are always trying to be like the big soccer players and get to know them," said Marcela. "Our motivation is to give these children the opportunity to dream for themselves, to know that they have so much life to live besides going to work or getting married when they're still children."
Of course, the mission of Saved by Soccer has always been about more than just training the next generation of athletes. It’s about equipping young minds for the future, and making it possible for them to choose their own path.
"It's been a joy. Many of these kids have fathers who move to the United States to get jobs, and then they forget their family, so mom has to go to work. The kids are raised on the streets and the older kids are trying to get them into the gangs. This program allows you to get into their lives,” said Stephen. “You don't get to rescue them all, but the ones that you do get? It's a great satisfaction."
Stephen and Marcela's next goal is to share Saved by Soccer with the world. "So often we try to change the world from the top down, but it's better changed from the bottom up," Stephen said.
Learn more at savedbysoccer.com