by Lorie Lewis Ham
Past Sunday mornings found the members of El Faro Community Church on the East Side of Reedley dealing with the distraction of kids outside their church making noise and causing problems. Men of the church would go out and talk to them on a regular basis. This year, things changed.
One Sunday morning near the beginning of 2010, Max Rios, Ignacio Cuevas and Ricardo Biberos went out to talk to the boys again. However, this time Ricardo asked them a question. “What needs to happen for you to be calm when you hang out here?” One of the boys yelled out that he wanted to play soccer. “I said okay if that’s what it takes for you guys to be a part of what’s happening here at the church then let’s start it up.” It was at that moment that these three men, knowing nothing about soccer, became coaches of a soccer team.
Ricardo set out to learn what had to be done to make it happen and the kids began spreading the word to their friends. In February, the Reedley Athletics from El Faro came to be and they began to learn and practice, mostly behind the church. The men began to educate themselves on the game, partially with the help of the boys themselves, many of whom had played soccer when they were younger. “And with the help of God,” said Ignacio.
The team of roughly 20 boys, ages 14-17, joined the Fresno and Dinuba soccer leagues and started competing, learning as they went along. Ignacio says they’ve played over 70 games and the improvement in their skills and attitudes has been incredible. Where the church used to be afraid to leave anything out in the parking lot, now the kids treat the people and things of El Faro with respect. “We’ve seen a lot of changes, beautiful changes. God is making a difference because they have been shown love. They have respect for the place now.”
Parents of these boys are seeing the difference as well. “Sometimes, they (parents) come to us and give thanks to the church because they see something different in their sons,” said Ricardo.
Things have also changed in their skill levels. In the beginning, the other teams teased them and expected an easy win. “Now it’s very different,” said Ignacio. “They know we are competition.” The leagues have been watching them closely as well and are impressed by their talent and improvement. They are also impressed by how well they behave at the games. “The president of the league in Dinuba tells us that he’s surprised that these kids, knowing that they come from the barrio, East Reedley, they don’t fight in the field, they are so peaceful.”
Ignacio is not surprised by how God is working with these kids. When he asks the team captain before a game what he wants to do, he always says they need to pray. To help the kids remember they are representing El Faro Community Church, in addition to their red Reedley Athletics uniforms, the team was recently given yellow uniforms imprinted with their names, numbers and “El Faro” to be used at home games. They are now officially the El Faro team. Ignacio reminded them when he handed out the new uniforms that they need to remember they represent El Faro and behave properly. “Putting the name of the player puts a lot of pressure on them — they know what they’re representing, it says El Faro. There’s two things I ask — respect all the people and respect El Faro Church. If you do that you can have more but, if you don’t individually, the uniform can be taken away.”
“This holds them accountable for what they are about and a part of, and that they really represent the community — this is their home, their neighborhood,” said Silvia Rios, a member of El Faro. “And the shirt lets them know that the church is supporting them and desiring much more for them in their life.”
To raise money for the uniforms, they had a car wash. “At first, they were afraid to go out and sell tickets to the car wash,” said Ricardo. “They said don’t you know no one wants to see us in the neighborhood, they know how we are. I said that was before guys, not anymore, you are different remember.”
Women of the church prepare food and bring it out to the games and many of the members and parents attend to cheer them on. “We weren’t aware of soccer before this,” shared Silvia. “We laugh about it because nobody watched soccer before the team but everybody watches it now.”
Whether they win or lose, Ignacio always reminds them the important thing is to play the game and have fun. Although a few of the kids are from other parts of town, Ignacio says they play like a real team now. When something happens to one of them during a game, they all rush in to help.
“They are right there if a team member falls down or gets hurt or is feeling down, they are lifting each other up,” said Silvia. “It’s brought the church closer as well. It’s also bringing the neighborhood together. We are getting to know the families too. The boys live across the street and now they (the families) know who we are and the names of the people loving their boys and being a part of their lives and doors are opening.”
Playing on the team has given the boys more hope for the future and a feeling that they do matter. In April, they visited 60 elementary and middle schools in Parlier, bringing the students pizza. “The kids at the school wanted their autographs and it made the players feel important and special,” Ignacio said.
Max, Ignacio and Ricardo also do special things for the boys on a regular basis; taking them out for pizza after games, going to the movies, taking them to a Grizzlies game, and to see the Fresno soccer team play. “We give them rewards because they are doing pretty good,” said Ricardo.
Ricardo’s brother-in-law, Victor Montoya, a former professional soccer player from México who now works as a trainer and recruiter, came and worked with the boys for five days and Ricardo said that he was very impressed. “He sees the potential in them that they could be in the professional league someday. The best players in soccer are from the barrios, not the universities. Especially in México. They come from the streets.”
Victor’s desire is to come back and invest more time into these boys and let the players know there is a place where they can advance, a place where they can succeed, continued Ricardo. “He wants to possibly connect this team with teams from México. To give them better training and see them grow.”
The El Faro team has already seen some significant success through one of their players, Gabriel Agabo, according to Ignacio. “Gabriel Agabo is currently tied with another player for most goals scored. There are still a few more games left in the regular season that will determine who leads the league in goals scored. We are very proud of the boys’ determination and commitment to the team.”
As for the future, Ignacio says they have many goals. The team desperately needs a better place to practice and their prayer is that God will provide this. They are also praying that a young man will rise up to help with the team so the boys can have someone closer to their age that they can relate to and who can be an example to them and walk along side them. But their greater goal is for the boys in general. “Soccer is to help them leave the streets but at the same time show them what the love of God is. Make a difference. One of the players recently came inside the church and went to the altar to receive Jesus and, to us, that means everything. We are so happy. We love them.”
“The game is for a season,” said Silvia. “But we don’t want to just be a part of their lives for a season. We want to be with them all the time, and watch their lives develop and watch them grow. The goal is more than just a game.”
Ricardo hopes more people in the community will come out to the games and see for themselves the changes in these boys’ lives, and encourage and support them. “We guarantee you are going to watch a professional game going on because these boys have passionately given themselves over completely and they work incredibly together.”
We thank Silvia and Ignacio for translating Ricardo’s comments for us.
Watch our Kings River Area Events calendar as we hope to start listing the team’s games.