Park City groups make push for sports equity for Latino youth
May 18, 2018
On a recent Saturday, 10 soccer players — all Latino, mostly high schoolers — gathered for a game in the Park City High School gym. The event was the latest stage of Pedro Alvarez's institution in Park City, a free soccer program that has run for the past 10 years, and has recently been converted into the International Soccer Club.
Since Alvarez started the program, it has served as an extra practice for players, a community gathering space and a place for those who can't afford to play on a club or don't know how to navigate through the local sports bureaucracy.
Two teams play on the court, with subs and other teams waiting perched on the stowed bleachers. While on the surface, the event is a simple pick-up game, it also acts like a haven for Latino soccer players in a sports landscape that requires money — sometimes more than $1,000, to play at the varsity level. And — despite efforts from nonprofits and the school system — cultural, linguistic and monetary barriers still keep some athletes, particularly Park City's Latinos, from joining competitive teams at the same rates as their peers, effectively blocking them from participating in activities regarded by some as a step toward unlocking greater opportunity.
With only 10 players on the recent Saturday, it was a slow day. Alvarez said sometimes there are as many 60 players of all ages, though lately that number has dipped, which Alvarez suspects is because game dates are not regular — they are scheduled and approved on a running basis rather than having a whole season approved at once.
Last year, Alvarez's soccer games, complete with a skills practice for middle school-aged players, were disallowed at Treasure Mountain Junior High School — which had hosted them for years for free.
Over the winter and spring, Park City High School faculty and Dirk Gootjes, the high school's community outreach coordinator for Latino families, worked out a way for the games to come to the high school. Technically, Alvarez could run the games for free out of the gym, so long as they were organized under a high school club, run by students and approved by the assistant principal. Gootjes became the club's mandatory faculty sponsor, which means he must be present at its Wednesday meetings and attend each pick-up soccer session. On Saturdays, he can be seen hanging out around the edge of the game, cheering on the players — the only one in boots instead of indoor soccer shoes.
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The club's students also have to pick game dates, convene, and get the games approved by the high school administration. And so in May, after discussions that started in November, the International Soccer Club became an official entity at Park City High School, and adopted Alvarez's's programming and pool of players.
Gootjes and Anthony Morales, a PCHS senior, an International Soccer Club member and an attendee at Alvarez's functions since he was in the eighth grade, estimated there were about 30 players, plus family members, at the first game.
"Usually we have four or five teams of five," he said. That includes teams from Kamas and Heber. "The people who come here usually play in their complex or have nowhere to play — that or they are too shy to play for a club or try out."
Alvarez moved to Park City 15 years ago after the garment distribution warehouse where he worked in Chico, California, closed down, and he created a soccer league, then reduced it to practices and pick-up games. Alvarez said his original impetus was getting kids into productive pastimes.
"All these kids, when they are very young, it's better to go to the sport than to go to the drugs and gangs," he said.
At Treasure Mountain, Alvarez said, he started each session with a skills practice for the younger kids — teaching fundamentals for an hour before games started. That aspect was a big draw for parents, who saw their kids benefit from the drills, and would sometimes stay to play with their kids.
"It's very important to involve the parents with the kids, too, because the problems hidden with the Latino community is, the parents never practice with their children because they are always working and working," Alvarez said. "They have two, three jobs, so it's very important to get them involved with the kids."
Under the International Soccer Club, Alvarez has had to ditch the skills clinics, and the number of parents who are involved has dwindled, he said. The sessions are three hours instead of four, time which Alvarez and the club have allotted for free play rather than clinics.
At the beginning of each session, the players don red and blue pennies that were donated by the Solomon Fund, an initiative under the Park City Community Foundation focused on raising Latino participation in sports, led by development and special projects manager Diego Zegarra.
Alvarez said Zegarra has always been helpful to his program — providing things the club needs, like its goals, and occasionally helping with organization.
By Zegarra's own account, the rate of Latino participation in sports in Park City is a tricky figure to pin down, just because there are so many different sports programs offered — but these days, things are looking up.
Across Park City, organizations are pledging to help increase Latino participation in sports programming. The Youth Sports Alliance, Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation, Basin Recreation, the PC MARC, Park City Ice Arena, Park City Soccer Club and others are making a conscious effort to boost Latino numbers.
"All the agencies we have approached have been open to collaborating and diversifying their enrollment," Zegarra said. "Nobody has said, 'We are happy with our lack of diversity.' Everyone is cognizant that there are some real barriers to access for the Latino community."
Mike Doleac, the varsity boys basketball coach at Park City High School, agrees. He said he has seen an underrepresentation in the basketball program. Though the program offers discounts on player fees, and publishes information in Spanish, he said there isn't a silver bullet to creating a more inclusive team.
Sometimes, he said, the problem is transportation, which is not something the small coaching staff can solve, for reasons that include liability. Another issue is finding the right amount to charge for a program or camp. While he and other coaches aren't trying to make a profit off of the youth or high school programs, everyone's time is valuable, and giving things away usually devalues the program in a philosophical sense — would-be participants consider it inferior compared to pricey alternatives.
"It's a hard balance to strike," Doleac said. "The goal is to not have financial reasons be why someone can't play basketball or soccer or softball — because that's terrible."
Zegarra said, while some Park City sports programs are expensive, for the most part they are cheaper than other clubs around the country.
According to a University of Utah study, the average annual spending for families with children ages 8 to 18 can be sizable. It estimates baseball costs a family an average of $1,143 per year — which is on the cheaper side. Lacrosse is at the top with an annual bill estimated at $7,956.
At Park City High School, Zegarra sees analogues in sports like cheerleading, which runs over the course of the school year and has a $1,100 price tag — $1,000 for travel, uniforms and other miscellaneous expenses and a $100 school participation fee.
It costs at least $800 to play with the Park City Lacrosse varsity boys team — $135 in registration fees, $123 in practice uniforms, and $550 for game uniforms, travel and field fees. On top of that, the club requires each family to volunteer for 10 hours each season.
Whether the fees are necessary or not, they are preclusive for many families.
Most of the fees for other sports at the high school aren't as high, and Gootjes said coaches are more than willing to help kids that have a real desire to play.
"They've been really on board," he said. "I've had to bug them a lot of times, and they never seem upset, they're always very helpful."
Students can have registration fees waived if they qualify for free and reduced lunch, but it falls on coaches to address fees that fund uniforms, referees, field time and travel — $275 for soccer, for instance — sometimes paying out of their pockets to help kids play.
Gootjes said some kids see the price of signing up for a sport and resign to not play simply because they don't know that there are options for low-income families. Others might be intimidated by the process of signing up for teams. That's where the International Soccer Club shines.
Sitting on the bleachers, Park City High School senior Anthony Morales said of the 10 kids playing that day, only three or four spoke English as their primary language.
"I know a lot of kids here wish they had tried out for the Park City (High School) team, but either they didn't feel like they (could compete) or they didn't feel comfortable enough," he said. "But here they feel confident."
He said language can be a big barrier, one that made him self-conscious in previous years, and, he thought, put him at a disadvantage to the native English speakers on the soccer field.
From Zegarra's perspective, sports are a great way to break those barriers down, to help kids feel more comfortable around peers of other socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds; they just need help getting into that setting. Getting kids into sports can help them build a knowledge of other cultures that helps them deal with their surroundings, or give them a broader view of the community's opportunities.
Zegarra, who is Peruvian, grew up attending a Peruvian private high school that exposed him to people of broad socioeconomic backgrounds, and gave him more opportunities than he would have otherwise had. He said helping connect kids with those opportunities and cultural knowledge is not only valuable to each of those individuals, but also helpful to the community in general.
"I think that it's about who we are as a community," he said. "Ultimately I think we'll foster a healthier Park City if we support these kids their ability to participate and be full members of the community."
When Zegarra talks about being full members of a community, he's talking about people like Enrique Sanchez, whose parents came to Park City from Guerrero, Mexico, when he was 2.
Sanchez grew up in the Park City school system, graduating from PCHS in 2016. He said sports taught him life skills and broadened his social network.
He started running track in the fourth grade, then in fifth grade saw a classmate wearing a football jersey with the student's name on the back, which sparked his interest in the game.
"One of the families in Park City picked me up on a Saturday and took me to a youth football game at Ecker fields," he said. "It opened me up to a new group of friends — new everything really."
"Skills and all these things that I still apply in my life today, in community boards and things like that, all these things I learned in my football days," he added.
It also helped introduce him to the people outside the Latino community in Park City.
"It really opened my eyes because I was just used to my own life," he said. "We would speak English at school and Spanish at home."
Sanchez sees reasons for hope that more Latino youth in Park City will have an experience like his.
Just since January, when he started working at the PC MARC, he has seen a bump in Latino participation in some sports because of the organization's efforts to reach the Latino community, including a greater focus on providing information in Spanish.
He said he's seen a lot of kids coming out for Karate and tennis.
"It's been great seeing those kids signing up to do something rather than just sitting at home playing video games," he said.
At the International Soccer Club, Gootjes and Morales are trying to bring even more students into the fold.
"I feel like eventually we will have more diversity," Morales said. "That tall kid's from Brazil, so that's something, but I want more people to come, not just Latinos, and not just guys but also girls."
But it's uncertain whether the club will get to that point — Alvarez is planning on speaking to Ecker Hill Middle School administration before the next season starts, in hopes of restoring the program to its former schedule. Gootjes might not be available next year, as he is seeking another position.
Ideally, Alvarez said, he hopes to work something out with one of the schools where the club can meet regularly. He's willing to transfer jobs from his position as nighttime supervisor at Treasure Mountain to a position at the high school, which would allow him to be the club's sponsor.
But like the students trying to make their way onto teams, it will likely depend on circumstances, some help from outside entities and the discretion of the administration.
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