By Krystina Lucido
Soccer is one of the world's most popular sports, but some people don't realize that not all countries have parents and coaches to help support youth soccer.
Ali Andrzejewski does.
Andrzejewski played soccer her whole life and has a slew of accolades to prove it, including training alongside Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy and other U.S. women's national team players during her five years on youth national teams. She led her team in scoring for Maryland, and Loyola when she transferred there. She played with professional teams -- the Washington Freedom, Colorado Force and now the Maryland Capitols.
What puts a smile on her face lately is remembering her trips to Nicaragua and Belize in January to teach the youth of the Central American countries about soccer and about life. This year was her fourth trip to Nicaragua. Her first as a junior in college was memorable, and she couldn't wait to return.
"I know that when I went to Nicaragua the first time, it resonated with me," she said, "and stuck with me and from that point on, I was like, 'I need to do something.' "
So she took the program she runs at her camps and private training sessions in Baltimore across the border, altering it to fit the culture of the country, but still teaching the youth (ages 15-23) skills, games and tournaments.
"They don't have coaches teaching skills or anything like that," Andrzejewski said of Nicaragua. "The kids [in America] hate the skills drills. They hate it. But we do the fun games and they love it. We also play a tournament at camp, which they love the most.
"In Nicaragua, they love the tournament the most too, but when we try to teach them skills, they love it, because they don't have anybody to teach them anything."
Andrzejewski took it upon herself to be the soccer mom of Nicaragua, lending some structure and some semblance to their skills not only in soccer, but in life.
Belize was a new addition to the schedule this year after Andrzejewski got hooked up with a school there through a parent of one of the children she coaches. It was a new culture and a new experience.
Andrzejewski described Nicaragua as community- and faith-oriented. She partners with the ILSE church, which is involved with and coordinates activities and teachings for the soccer program. For Andrzejewski, heading into Belize should have been a familiar process. Instead, she said, it was a free-for-all.
"When I left Nic, I was so sad to leave, but I knew that everybody was going to be OK," she said. "When I was in Belize, these kids are coming from broken homes, parents that are on drugs, alcohol, single-family homes, families that are just plain poor and can't provide their kids with a lot."
"Coach Ali" passionately described the plight of the children in Belize, the free time they have between school and dinner that they spend roaming around unsupervised and getting into trouble. Her program provides a week of activity that makes them not want to go home.
"When I left Belize, I was devastated to leave," she said, "because I didn't have that feeling that these kids are going to be OK. My feeling was, 'We've come in. We've given these kids a wonderful opportunity to play soccer for the week,' and when the week was over, I felt like, 'Oh my goodness, what are these kids going to do now?' "
Andrzejewski said she took comfort in the fact that other volunteers tutor youngsters in high school exams, teach them musicals and generally enrich their lives for the better. Her 10-year plan is to build a recreation center where they can go after school.
"They can go and join a league, play basketball or volleyball or there are after-school activities," she said. "You have to have funding to hire people to work at the place and we would go down and train the people on what to do. So that's the future mission for Belize."
More Front Row:
• Soccer Standout Takes Coaching Skills To Central America
• One Love Foundation Soars Beyond Goals
• Studies Show Lacrosse Is On Growth Binge
• Dogged Legislators Made Lacrosse Official Sport
• Mike Bordick Welcomes New Orioles Role
• Annual Plunge Raised $2.5 Million In 16th Year
• From The Cheap Seats
Issue 170: February 2012