Free Footie soccer program a breakaway success
Tim Adams' start up league grows from four to 76 teams in six years
Emmanuel Bisirat's dream is to play soccer. It always has been.
"It's not kicking a ball and trying to score; it's having fun with your friends and living the game," says the 12-year-old who came to Canada from Ethiopia 10 years ago.
Free Footie night is his favourite night of the week, a chance to play organised soccer, something his family could not afford otherwise.
Free Footie was founded six years ago by CBC Edmonton's Tim Adams. Coaching soccer in the years before, he noticed there were some kids in the city who couldn't afford to play.
"The kids here really appreciate it since they get to play with their friends for free with no registering," he said. "It's pretty much you ask to join and you're in."
Six years later, more and more kids are getting the chance to kick a ball around. There are now 76 teams in the Free Footie league, with about 1,200 players.
The program works with 40 schools in communities where the city's poorest families live.
"There are kids here from all around the world. There's lots of newcomers, refugees; there are kids coming from the outlying reserves around Edmonton," Adams said. "There are kids whose families have been here forever, but just need a little bit of extra support. But I can tell you being around these kids, I would be proud to call them my own."
With so many kids playing, the number of volunteers including referees and coaches continues to grow, now around 300.
'Pulls us together more as a community'
Melissa Guzzo, a Grade 6 teacher at Mother Teresa School, coaches because she sees the difference it makes in her students.
"Those kids bond even more," she said. "It's just they come together and everything is 'what happened at the game?' and 'what shall we work on?', 'how much fun it is.' It really pulls us together more as a community."
"This gives you confidence to remember this and go to another team and then you get confidence for how you did that time and you can do the same thing next time."
Guzzo and the many other teachers who give their time say in almost every case the kids involved in Free Footie are doing better in class and showing up to school more.
That's one of the reasons Adams has already been recognized by the Alberta government, winning a crime prevention award for his work with Free Footie. But he's quick to point out one of the main goals of the program is simply to see smiles on the faces of the kids who play.
"It doesn't matter if they turn into a pro or go anywhere with it at all, so long as they have a little bit of fun, get a little bit of exercise and learn some of those basic skills, we're happy."
As it turns out some players who got their start with Free Footie have gone on to represent Canada and others are closing in on professional contracts.
'Feeling like a real team of professionals'
And although fun is a key part of it all, there's an organized feel to the way things are structured today. About 50 sponsors from around the city make sure equipment is covered. Each team has new uniforms this year with sponsor names emblazoned on the front.
"You can just have fun and you get sponsored by different companies, so that's cool as well — feeling like a real team of professionals," said Joshua Zimulinda.
And the sponsorships mean none of the kids have to make their own shin pads anymore, says Adams recalling the time one of his players would stuff a day planner inside his socks.
"Without this program, who knows what they'd be doing after school. With this we keep them busy. They have to be part of a team. They have to stick to a schedule and it keeps them occupied."
Bisirat says he can't thank Adams and all the volunteers who make the league happen enough.
"It gets to me when I think that someone just by themselves independently would start a whole soccer league just for kids."
And for Adams, the best indicator of success comes at the end of the season.
"The best moments are when I see the yearbooks at the end of the year of the schools and they have their little photo and underneath the photo it says 'what was the best thing this year?' and it says 'Free Footie.'"
"That's every yearbook, almost every kid, and that's all you can ask for."