For many Duke students, there exists an invisible wall between the University and the larger Durham community. But a group of Blue Devil football players took it upon themselves to start a program that has brought local high school students on campus twice a week this spring for a game that the players themselves are still learning.

An idea that originated last June, Soccer Sin Fronteras—a free after-school soccer program—was created as a collaborative effort between Duke and Latino and Latina youth in the Durham area. Despite being much less familiar with soccer, the football players have been instrumental to the program’s early success.

The birth of a partnership

During the summer of 2014, six Duke football players and a few other students enrolled in an intensive Spanish language course taught by Liliana Paredes, director of the Spanish Language Program. During the six-week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. class, students studied and practiced Spanish and participated in service learning events with the Latino and Latina community, which accounts for 13.5 percent of Durham County.

Toward the end of the summer session, redshirt junior defensive tackle A.J. Wolf and junior safety Grant Hall were approached at a community event by Lorena Sanchez, a mother of three, who was looking to start an inexpensive, accessible soccer program for Latino and Latina youth in the area that would benefit them academically as well as socially and physically.

“The idea came from the boy in the yellow shoes over there,” Sanchez said, pointing to her son on the soccer field at a recent practice on Duke’s Central Campus. “He liked to play soccer when he was little and I tried to find a place for him to play, but everything I was looking at was too expensive.”

Because Sanchez could not manage to find a suitable program for her son, she sought out Ivan Almonte—a high school counselor who is intricately involved with Latino and Latina youth in Durham—to assist her. Almonte directed her to Paredes, who began the discussion about starting a soccer league.

The only question was how to do it.

“I was considering different options to make this happen,” Paredes said. “You need some sort of structure because with volunteer work alone, things don’t usually happen very fast.”

With some help and input from her colleagues in the Spanish department, Paredes settled on the idea of turning the project into a topic for an independent study. What she originally thought would be just Wolf and Hall turned out to be a small class of nine students—including Wolf, Hall, center Austin Davis, tight end Erich Schneider, offensive tackle Gabe Brandner and defensive end Michael Mann—working together to help one mother bring about her wish for a more accessible soccer program for children like her son.

“We needed a course name,” Paredes said. “That’s when we decided to call it Soccer Sin Fronteras [Soccer Without Borders].”

An exercise in patience

Before the organization could hit the field, however, it needed to complete a detailed to-do list, which the players anticipated would take a few weeks but ended up requiring two months of work. Toward the beginning of the process, the players and students became increasingly concerned that the vision they shared with Sanchez would not pan out the way they hoped.

The direction was uncertain and the planning was overwhelming, and all of their conversations were centered on infrastructure and funding. But Paredes said that the players and students remained determined to deal with their challenges.

“The first two months, we were very frustrated,” Paredes admitted. “We didn’t know the direction we were going, but all of the logistics were things that we ultimately had to do.”

In order to work with minors, every member of the group was required to go through a training and certification process beforehand. In addition, the group also had to tackle the issue of risk management and insurance, and with some help from Lee Baker, dean of academic affairs for Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, Paredes and her students were able to find the right people to guide them.

Once the liability information was squared away, it was up to the students to start fine-tuning the details of the program. But like most things leading up to this point, it was not going to be as easy as they originally thought. Paredes pointed out that the hardest part was finding practice space.

Grant Hall and his Duke teammates are learning the ins and outs of soccer while participating in the Soccer Sin Fronteras project.

“There were a lot more logistical hurdles than we thought there’d be,” Hall said. “We came across some obstacles that we didn’t think we would, namely how the kids were going to get here and field reservations.... Insurance was also a big deal.”

The group ran into another minor issue when trying to figure out the specifics of the program—very few of the Duke students had much experience with soccer.

As a result, the members of the organization had to educate themselves about the sport in order to be able to best instruct the youth who come to practice with them. Their resources included countless YouTube videos on soccer fundamentals, whatever prior knowledge any individual has about soccer and even some help from members of the Duke men’s soccer team.

“Most of the people involved in the program are football players,” Wolf said. “A lot of us haven’t played soccer much or at all. A soccer league is a lot easier to start than, say, a football league, so logistically it is probably the best, but soccer is also the sport of the community that we’re trying to reach.”

The process was a learning experience for everyone, as well as something that could not be rushed if the program was to succeed.

“It’s not something that we’re the most comfortable with,” Hall said. “But it’s definitely fun to push ourselves.”

Mentorship and communication

One of the most vital components of a partnership is communication. Hall said that group communication has been made easier by the fact that many of the members are also teammates.

“Because we’re teammates, we already have the skills we need to work together,” Hall said. “We can cooperate well, and we can talk to each other on a real level if we have to. And there’s also an aspect of respect that comes from the fact that we’re all working toward the same goal and we can hold each other accountable to do our best.”

The language barrier has not been the easiest to overcome. For many of the program’s participants and their parents, Wolf said, English is not their primary language, which makes it harder to relay messages efficiently.

Paredes said this particular obstacle has been a bit easier to overcome due to the diversity of proficiency in Spanish within the group but can still present a problem when trying to communicate important information on a large scale.

This communication is particularly important for the athletes and students that coach the kids to be able to communicate effectively with their team. Junior Natasha Catrakilis also emphasized the importance of this particular type of communication. She, as well as other members of the organization, had never coached a team before getting involved with Soccer Sin Fronteras.

“Figuring out that dynamic has been quite a challenge,” Catrakilis said. “Trying to figure out how to communicate with someone younger than you, how to get that respect but still have them be comfortable around you has been big challenge for all of us, but doing it in a group setting really helped.”

The 42 participants are split up into three teams—a red team, a blue team and a green team—all coached by the student members of the organization. On a typical practice day, following between 30 and 50 minutes of warm-up and skill drills, two of the three teams will scrimmage while the other team participates in a leadership discussion led by their coach, with occasional assistance from Paredes.

“It’s really during these discussions that you get the closest to the kids, I think,” Hall said. “You get to see what they genuinely think and feel about things outside of just playing soccer.”

In addition to helping develop their skills, Catrakilis and others see the leadership component of the program as one of the most useful and vital features of the organization.

“It’s one thing to develop athletic ability,” Catrakilis said. “What we really try to teach the kids is that all the skills that they learn playing sports can be transferred into school and life and I hope that we are achieving that.”

Passion is contagious

With the help and support of the Duke and Durham communities, Soccer Sin Fronteras hopes to grow in both size and value to the Latino and Latina community in Durham and elsewhere in North Carolina. Many members of the community have expressed their gratitude for this program and said they are excited to see it grow and plan to help in whatever ways they can.

The members of the organization agree that this process has been a valuable learning experience overall. From reserving soccer fields to coaching to fundraising, they all have more knowledge about the Latino and Latina community than they did coming in.

“I’m here not just for a degree but for an education,” Hall said. “Getting educated on the culture around me is a super important part of that. Opportunities like this really force some self-reflection on you and I think I’ve learned a lot about myself in having to do that.”

Wolf said that one of the most important things he has learned during this process is the importance of bringing energy to the practice field every day.

“Passion is contagious,” he said. “You have to lead by example and if you are excited about what you are doing, then the kids are going to be excited about it too.”

The organization’s first—and currently only—sponsor is Antonio Rodriguez, owner of La Vaquita restaurant in Durham. Rodriguez said that the passion he has seen in the organization had a big impact on him as well. He recently donated almost $1,000 to go toward official jerseys for the team.

“The program interests me because it is helping the youth. I think that it is a way of supporting the young boys through soccer,” Rodriguez said. “The support that Duke is giving, I feel the same commitment, being Latino myself, to do my part to help my race. If Duke can do it, I can do it too.”*

Not only has the passion of the organization reached other members of the Latino and Latina community, it has even found its way to some of the local high school teachers.

“A lot of the kids, for various reasons, cannot be on the high school team,” said one teacher who attended the final practice. “This is their time to get crowds and attention and we like to be able to come out and support them in that.”

Redshirt junior defensive tackle A.J. Wolf is one of several Blue Devil football players involved with the Soccer Sin Fronteras project.

Although the group has made some grand strides since Wolf and Hall were first approached by Sanchez, they do not plan on settling for where they are now. With their current resources, they have been forced to turn away youth who are interested in participating.

In the immediate future, the group hopes to find even more students, faculty and staff who have a passion for soccer, the Latino and Latina community and the Spanish language to aid in their effort to reach out to young Latino and Latina youth in the Durham area.

“A year from today, I see this being a program with about 30-40 kids, a full-size practice field, official uniforms, a roster and some competitive tournament play,” Wolf said.

For his 21st birthday, Wolf said that instead of presents, he is accepting donations to the group’s Indiegogo account.

Sanchez said the program has proven to be exactly what she was looking for.

“The program is stupendous to me,” she said. “It is something that I didn’t expect. I hope that the program grows and lasts for a long time.”*

*Translated from Spanish by Olivia Banks