Saskatchewan·Future 40

'You can overcome barriers': Sheryl Okemaysim Bugler reflects on a decade of running Indigenous youth soccer

For Sheryl Okemaysim Bugler, playing soccer as kid on the Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation made all the difference. So the 2016 Future 40 finalist decided to pay it forward to the next generation.

Sheryl Okemaysim Bugler and husband help hundreds of Indigenous kids play soccer with Native Sons

Sheryl Okemaysim Bugler and husband Corey Bugler (centre) with members of the Native Sons soccer teams. (Sheryl Okemaysim Bugler/Submitted to CBC)

Sheryl Okemaysim Bugler can't imagine her life without soccer.

Growing up on the Beardy's & Okemasis First Nation, she was introduced to the sport through a free program run by a member of the reserve.

"I looked forward to games and I remember how it made me feel," she said. "We're a big family and we had a lot of alcoholism in our home and this was my most healthy, positive outlet."

The local soccer program paid for the fees and transportation to and from practice for kids, opening up a whole new world for then eight-year-old Okemaysim Bugler, who grew up in a family of 10.

"We weren't very rich so a lot of the times we didn't have a lot of extras, so I remember that feeling of not being able to do things," she said. "But once this program came about, I loved it and I just felt like other kids should have that too."

A photo of the Native Sons' boys team at the 2011 U18 World Cup in Gottenburg, Sweden. (Sheryl Okemaysim Bugler/Submitted to CBC)

Okemaysim Bugler and her husband, teacher Corey Bugler, started to seriously think about creating their own soccer program in 2008 during a visit to Cowichan, B.C. The pair were coaching a youth soccer team that summer at the North American Indigenous Games.

"From there, we knew there had to be more," she said.

Native Sons helps hundreds play

A photo of the Native Sons' girls team in Gottenburg, Sweden. (Sheryl Okemaysim Bugler/Submitted to CBC)

A few months later, the couple founded the Native Sons boys' soccer team. Okemaysim Bugler said about 30 boys tried out. The couple decided they would take the new team to the U18 Youth Cup in Europe — an ambitious endeavour considering many of the children had not travelled outside of the province.

Okemaysim Bugler said their team ranked 60th in the international championship. After their competitive showing on a world stage, she and her husband were convinced they needed to expand. 

Before, it wasn't really heard of for a lot of First Nations people to be playing at a higher level of soccer.- Sheryl Okemaysim Bugler

The next year they held tryouts for a boys and a girls team.

From there, they began coaching up to three teams a year. Once one team would finish, another would start. In recent years, Native Sons would regularly hold packed tryouts in Prince Albert, North Battleford and Saskatoon, Sask.

"It was something that was needed and wanted and it grew each year," she said.

Sheryl Okemaysim Bugler and her husband have taken kids on trips around the world with the Native Sons soccer teams. (Sheryl Okemaysim Bugler/Submitted to CBC)

Okemaysim Bugler said the teams would rotate practicing schedules between the cities to even out travel time for all of the players and their families. If there was a child that couldn't play due to financial barriers, they always found a way around them.

"We did every kind of fundraising that you can think of," said Okemaysim Bugler.

She and her husband estimate that over the past 10 years, they've raised at least $300,000 through grassroots, local efforts — everything from bake sales to golf tournaments — in order to help some 900 kids play.

"Before, it wasn't really heard of for a lot of First Nations people to be playing at a higher level of soccer," she said. "I know that our program kind of helped a little bit. Some are playing college soccer and university soccer."

The Native Sons at the USA Cup. (Sheryl Okemaysim Bugler/Submitted to CBC)

Okemaysim Bugler proudly lists off names of players who have pursued soccer as adults, including her own daughter, Sheris Okemaysim, who manages to fit in soccer games and tournaments with local kids on her teaching internship in a small town in Uganda.

Sheryl's daughter, Sheris Okeymasim, in Uganda. (Sheryl Okemaysim Bugler/Submitted to CBC)

Okemaysim Bugler said her daughter told her it reminds her of home.

Other former Native Sons players founded First Nations soccer clubs and are currently training hard to play at adult competitions throughout Sask.

Okemaysim Bugler, who works full-time with the RCMP, said she and her husband decided to take this season off because he decided to run for a position with the FSIN.

She said they've had calls from people wondering when the Native Sons will be back. They will be, likely in the new year.

Okemaysim Bugler said the past 10 years have been hard work, but it was worth it.

Sheryl Okemaysim Bugler and daughter (left) Sheris Okemaysim. (Sheryl Okemaysim Bugler/Submitted to CBC)

"To help kids reach their goal, you know. You can overcome barriers to living that healthy, positive life," she said "You know you don't have to be the best, you just have to be committed."

Okemaysim Bugler was one of 40 finalists to be named a CBC Saskatchewan Future 40 in 2016. Do you know someone like her who is making Saskatchewan better? Nominate them today.


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