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Aug 1, 2009

Street Soccer USA lending a helping hand

WASHINGTON -- The Street Soccer USA Cup is as much about reaching personal goals as scoring them on the field, but neither could be accomplished without the assistance of a seemingly endless army of helpers ready, willing and able to do all they can to help the program, and its participants, succeed.

The competition brings 16 teams of homeless men and women from all over the country together at Washington's Kastles Stadium, in the center of downtown D.C., for three days of celebration, encouragement, and, of course, soccer for its 160 participants.

"Street Soccer USA allows players to strive as part of a team towards a target goal of improving their lives, and playing for the Street Soccer USA Cup sustains them in that effort," said Lawrence Cann, the founder and CEO of Street Soccer USA, which operates under the umbrella of HELP USA -- a national homeless services provider.

"Likewise, the Cup provides volunteers the chance to engage in a movement that shifts how we address homelessness in our society."

Indeed.

More than 115 volunteers registered to help with everything from logistics to refereeing, with more helpers -- including more than 1,000 who signed up to man cheering sections -- from all walks of life and from every corner of the country eager to help.

"I heard about the movement," said Dave Tyahla, an event referee and the director of government relations for the U.S. Soccer Foundation, who has dedicated his time and considerable connections to the SSUSA cause. "I set up meetings on Capitol Hill for [Cann]. I set up meetings for him with DC United. Got him down to DC United to meet the players. They got some inspiration from him and were blown away by the entire process. And then when they went overseas [to Copenhagen for the Homeless World Cup] I helped them get uniforms, and we were able to get them real U.S. Soccer Federation uniforms."

Why has Tyahla seen fit to exhaust so much time and effort?

"It's a great program, very inspiring," he said. "The players are great -- life stories that you can't even imagine unless you've personally experienced it. And they're all different. There's no stereotype -- there is no stereotype for how you get to that point in your life. Everybody wants to stereotype how the homeless got where they are, but every one of these guys has a completely different story."

Like that of 35-year-old Sam Mejia (pronounced "Mezzhia"), who, before coming across Ann Arbor's Street Soccer Project Outreach program, confessed to having briefly slept in an abandoned gas station and a nearby forest on the outskirts of the town the University of Michigan calls home.

Having spent the first 21 years of his life living on a Cherokee reservation in western North Carolina, Mejia admits that bad choices and a lack of knowledge regarding life outside the reservation -- where he says he spent months at a time roaming the forests without a tent, feeding on mostly squirrels, deer and some skunk -- led to his nadir.

But Mejia soon turned things around, finding lodging in a Washtenaw County, Mich., homeless shelter and enrolling in a GED program. And with help from Outreach co-founders Sara Silvennoinen, Linda Bacigalupi and Jim Bastian, as well as the network of men and women enrolled in the program, Mejia earned his equivalency degree, found an apartment and moved on to accomplish the seemingly unthinkable.

"I just completed my first semester at Michigan," he says.

And what is Mejia -- who insists those times spent in the forests of North Carolina were his version of a "hobby" -- studying?

"Mechanical engineering."

He says he never could have done it without the help of others -- in his program, classroom and community.

"We have to realize that's why we're here -- to help each other," he said. "Sometimes we don't realize what we need in spirit, but [fellow Outreach workers and members] come back around and follow up with you. And that was my major motivation. I said, 'OK, I'm going to school and getting this thing done.'"

"They do grow as a family, and they become a part of our family, too," Silvennoinen said on Friday, after Team Ann Arbor's 1-2 start to the multitiered tournament. "And that's part of the organization; everyone feels like a family.

"I think there's a lot of socialization that's come through it," added Silvennoinen, a former collegiate soccer player at Heidelberg College in Ohio. "It's a lot of constant activities. I think it's really difficult when you're living on the streets and trying to fit in somewhere. I think that's very difficult. So this is like a place where everyone can be themselves. Everyone's dealing with the same issues. it's a place where they can come in and relieve pressure."

Back in the D.C. offices, the message of service remains the same.

Said Jeremy Goldberg, chief operating officer of Street Soccer USA: "The volunteers are signing up for an unfamiliar experience, but what they eventually learn is a more intimate self-knowledge and a deeper respect and appreciation for those who they've signed on to help."

The Street Soccer USA Cup ends Aug. 2, with the announcement of the players who will make up the U.S. national team, which will take part in the Homeless World Cup in Milan from Sept. 6-13.

Ethan Donaldson is an assistant editor for ESPN.com.

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