For former Towson Tiger Katie Ponce, soccer has been a large part of her identity for as long as she can remember. The Westfield, N.J., native can recall starting to play soccer when she was in first grade, saying she was a very active 6-year-old.
Ponce would go on to play at Towson University, scoring 12 goals in four years. She scored six goals during her senior year in 2014, helping to lead the Tigers to their first appearance in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. She graduated from Towson in 2015 with a degree in business administration and was on the reserve squad of the Boston Breakers in the National Women's Soccer League for the past two years as a midfielder.
However, for Ponce, her pursuit of soccer goes beyond personal accomplishment; she sees the sport as a vehicle to help others. And that's why the 23-year-old Ponce left the United States in late June for Kampala, Uganda, where she'll be staying for a year participating in a program called Soccer Without Borders.
Soccer Without Borders operates in several countries in Africa and Latin America, as well as Mexico, Cuba and the United States, using soccer as part of a larger effort to help young people in those places with language education, nutritional counseling and cross-cultural understanding.
"Soccer has given me so much, so I knew I wanted to give back to the sport in some way," Ponce said before she left for Uganda. "Since I've graduated, I've been definitely trying to decide what that way would be. Most recently, I just kind of feel like I have a little bit of that, 'I want to change the world a little bit,' and this is going to be so fulfilling and definitely a start to bigger plans that I have."
There are 350 kids ages 5-18 in SWB's program in Kampala, where Ponce will be working. She will be one of two team leaders who will work with the young people there along with local workers. Soccer, as an international pastime, is a natural starting point to build a sense of community, allow kids to establish relationships with one another (and their coaches) and to experience a team-oriented environment.
SWB's international program also places an emphasis on getting girls involved in soccer because of the challenges females face in many cultures around the world in becoming fully integrated into society. Less than 10 percent of the world's soccer players are women, according to SWB's website. In fact, SWB's international site in Nicaragua is populated exclusively by young women, according to the website.
SWB also has programs in four U.S. cities -- Baltimore, Boston, Oakland, Calif., and Greeley, Colo. -- that serve mostly refugee children in elementary school to high school. SWB helps connect them through soccer and academic activities, such as teaching them English.
That's how Ponce became familiar with SWB.
She first became aware of the organization through a Towson teammate who was involved with the Baltimore chapter. Then, Ponce began volunteering at SWB practices once a week last winter in Boston while she was with the Breakers. Her once-a-week volunteer experience led her to making this journey to Uganda.
Boston SWB program coordinator Lucas Holmes said Ponce may be a perfect fit for the program in Uganda.
"Katie is the kind of person where you immediately feel comfortable in her presence and someone who is very knowledgeable but humble at the same time," Holmes said. "Obviously, she's one of the most skilled volunteers we've had, but she presents herself in a way that's welcoming and it made our kids feel comfortable with her right away. I think her humility and kindness stand out."
In Uganda, Ponce will also help coach and educate refugee children. Before she left, Ponce said teaching would be a challenge because of the language barrier. Still, she's excited for the opportunity, and since there's no set curriculum, a team leader like Ponce can be creative about what she teaches, whether it be history or something like empowering women.
"The girls who come every week, they become best friends," Ponce said of her time volunteering in Boston. "I think it brings them a safe place where they feel close with the coaches and feel close with each other. These refugees are coming from all different countries to Uganda, I hope we can create that same safe place and they feel comfortable with me and with each other."
Issue 223: July 2016