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Shannon Thompson, a member of the Whitehorse Wildfire, coaches the 'Tots program' in exchange for fundraising credits to use towards her competitive teams travel costs. ((Arnold Hedstrom/CBC))

In these uncertain economic times, Canadian soccer families have to adapt to rising travel expenses, and more importantly, budget for them. 

But when a team's closest match is in the United States, thousands of kilometres away by car, players, coaches and parents have to be creative. 

A perfect case in point is eight teenage girls from Whitehorse who are taking part in a unique development program which teaches local children the game of soccer.

In exchange, the Yukon Soccer Association created a system that transfers fundraising credits into the girls' bank accounts, to be used towards their own team's travel expenses.

Trip costs $1,000

"Any trip we take, you're looking at upwards of $1,000," Debbie Thompson, co-ordinator of the soccer tots program told CBCSports.ca.

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Helen Hedstrom-Langford and Alexis Miller hope to be invited to the national championship in Winnipeg. ((Arnold Hedstrom/CBC))

Debbie's daughter Shannon enjoys coaching a team as part of this fundraising initiative because the money "all goes to my parents for my soccer trips, so it is easy to keep track of."

Shannon plays soccer for the Whitehorse Wildfire and said, "my parents do a lot for me, so I try to do as much fundraising as possible."

The Wildfire play in a competitive league and hope to make it to the national championships for the second time in three seasons. However, the team's remote location in the Yukon makes it difficult to co-ordinate regular games.

"Nationals are in Winnipeg this year, so we go to Juneau, Alaska to play exhibition games — which is one of the cheapest trips because we charter a plane up," Debbie Thompson explained. "Then we're hoping to go through British Columbia, Alberta and Washington."

In addition, the team members participate in the Indigenous Games for players of First Nations descent, and the Arctic Games.

Practices engage all players

As coaches, the girls organize indoor and outdoor developmental sessions for children between the ages of four and five. Practices are designed to ensure each player has a ball at all times.

Debbie Thompson said parents often want their kids playing competitive games too early, but the association's logic aims to improve the tots' long-term development.

"Games don't encourage activity for all of the kids," she said. "At this age, when you only have one ball, they can't share."

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At an early age, the focus is not on competitive soccer, but having fun games with kids and getting them active. ((Arnold Hedstrom/CBC))

Whitehorse Wildfire manager Jan Langford said, "At an early age, the focus is not on competitive soccer, but having fun games with kids and getting them active." That way, she added, they're "in sports and enjoying themselves, so they do continue on into a soccer program or some other sport."

Player-coaches such as Helen Hedstrom-Langford enjoy the program — especially the travel credit system.

"I know the money I make will go towards my travel with soccer and won't be spent on something else less important," said Hedstrom-Langford.

Also, having teenage players coaching "helps us understand more about our coaches, because sometimes it's really hard to figure out a practice that kids will like … I appreciate my coaches more and it makes me want to work harder for them," Hedstrom-Langford said.

Builds valuable leadership skills

The program also reflects positively on the player-coaches, most of whom plan to apply to universities and colleges in the coming years.

"It shows you have leadership skills … and I think it will help me get jobs and show I'm a well rounded person when applying to universities," said Hedstrom-Langford.

Shannon Thompson said not only does it keep the tots' parents happy, but it "gives me more opportunities for jobs because I get to know more people in the community."

Her mother agrees. The coaching-for-travel program is an opportunity for the girls of the Wildfire "to give back to the community the skills they've developed over the years in their soccer."

Hedstrom-Langford says the program also ensures the local tots get a great start to their athletic future.

"Soccer is huge in our community, so it starts at a younger age than many other sports," she says.