Like dandelions blooming all at once, dozens of kids ages three to nine emerge on the field next to Brooklands School wearing bright yellow soccer jerseys.

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Like dandelions blooming all at once, dozens of kids ages three to nine emerge on the field next to Brooklands School wearing bright yellow soccer jerseys.

Carefully dribbling the ball around neon green cones, five-year-old Aubrey Sanderson learns the basics of ball control at the Winnipeg Youth Soccer Association's Mobile Mini Soccer Program.

"I'm glad she wants to play," her mom, Marilyn Delaronde, said during Tuesday night's free soccer clinic, grateful for the chance to buck a trend that is making it increasingly difficult for inner-city kids to play organized sports.

"I want her to be active and have fun and be involved with other kids."

The 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup, which visits Winnipeg for a number of matches next month, is supposed to inspire girls such as Aubrey to embrace the beautiful game and all its benefits -- improved fitness, self-confidence, teamwork and leadership skills.

But for the fastest-growing segments of Winnipeg's population -- indigenous and newcomer kids living outside affluent suburban areas -- it's not been that welcoming, a Statistics Canada report says. Low-income and newcomer girls are among the least likely to play organized sports, according to Canadian Social Trends: Kids' Sports. It found transportation and financial issues have made it tough for inner-city kids to channel their energy into organized sport.

Seeing the value of investing in kids playing soccer, Winnipeg soccer organizations and social agencies are trying to help more kids get in the game.

WYSA's Mobile Mini Soccer Program has volunteer coaches from five soccer clubs, who travel around the inner city taking the free weekly clinic to kids where they live.

"It's my favourite age," said Caitlyn Madzin, an assistant coach with the Bonivital Soccer Club U-15 girls team. "You can do whatever with them.

"They want to learn."

Madzin is studying to be a teacher and thrives on helping the budding young players bursting with energy learn some soccer skills.

The Mobile Mini Soccer Program is designed for four- to eight-year-olds, but three-year-old Andrea Harper was allowed to join with her five-year-old brother, Quayden. Right away, Andrea was taken by the hand by a girl a couple of years older and together they learned to control the ball.

Aubrey's mom is grateful someone is teaching her daughter soccer skills.

"I'm not a big sports person," Delaronde said. She played basketball and volleyball until she dropped out of high school. She's since gone back to finish high school and college and now works with at-risk youth. She'd like Aubrey to benefit from organized sport. Soccer takes kids away from computers and hand-held devices and encourages them to interact with others, Delaronde said.

"It's really good for her, to break her of her shyness."

Since 2013, an estimated 1,600 children have taken part in the Mobile Mini Soccer Program supported by WYSA, the Manitoba Soccer Association, Tim Hortons and run in conjunction with WYSA's five district soccer clubs.

The one-hour weekly program runs to June 11 at Dufferin School, Brooklands School, Lord Selkirk School and Central Park.

"Our target is the inner city," said Carlo Bruneau, WYSA's executive director. "We're trying to provide an opportunity for children to participate in organized sport. It's an opportunity they might not otherwise get."

For Bonivital coach Jorge Cabral, helping kids such as Aubrey is payback time on his old stomping grounds. His parents immigrated from Portugal and they moved to Brooklands when he was four. His mom and dad didn't speak English and recreation was a luxury they couldn't afford.

"They worked day and night," Cabral said. The neighbourhood hasn't changed much -- but now the working-class parents hail from the Philippines, India and First Nations.

From left, Nasra, Noela, and Falanga joke around while playing on the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba "IRCOM" Cobras under-16 girls soccer team.


From left, Nasra, Noela, and Falanga joke around while playing on the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba "IRCOM" Cobras under-16 girls soccer team.

Transporting kids to organized sports and paying registration fees for sports still isn't possible for many, he said. "It's not the richest neighbourhood."

Nearby, Major Chohon watched his son and daughter Manpreet, seven, and Supanpreet, 51/2, laughing and chasing the ball under Cabral's mentorship.

"It's lots of fun," said Chohon, whose wife was at work and unable to watch their kids play.

Both of their children were born in India before they immigrated to Canada almost five years ago. Chohon's family is getting established in the community and that includes his son and daughter both playing sports.

If the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, then making sure it belongs to a healthy, confident woman who can dribble, pass and be a team player benefits everyone.

"Healthy women make their communities healthier," said Michelle Schmidt, director of programs for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Winnipeg. "When we create healthy girls and young women at a young age, we make our communities healthier in the long run."

The Boys and Girls Clubs set up its own soccer program for girls just starting to play who aren't yet ready to join a league, she said. "We want them to be successful."

The Clubs is also involved in a community spring and summer league with teams from the Spence Neighbourhood Association and other agencies.

"The girls gain confidence and so many social skills," Schmidt said. "We start to see role models in communities where there'd been a limited amount of role models."

For girls from immigrant and refugee communities, soccer can help them cope with harsh realities ahead, said Sarah Schwendemann, a youth support worker and soccer coach.

"It kind of helps them deal with things they're going to encounter in years to come," said Schwendemann, 26, who coaches the U-16 Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM) Cobras.

"Coaches or parents can say really hurtful or mean things, not understanding the community we're coming out of."

One time, soon after the IRCOM girls began playing three years ago, parents from another team were screaming at the 13-year-old players who wore a head covering, or hijab, she said. The racist and ignorant shouting upset the girls and their coach.

"It was almost like a movie out of the '80s," Schwendemann said.

Hurtful words are still being hurled, but the Cobras have developed a thick skin, she said. "Now they take it much less offensively. There's a big change in how they respond," said their coach. "I've had to learn how to brush it off, too. You can never control what kind of people you're going to pass in the street and what they're going to say."

What society can control is making sport accessible to kids, said Chino Argueta, director of Youth Agencies Alliance. It helps kids access sports and funding support so they can play team sports such as soccer, basketball and now football.

"Recreation opportunities should become a cornerstone of every community, with community centres and schools playing a big role in becoming hubs with multiple access points for adults and kids," Argueta said.

It's a worthwhile investment, given the correlation between physical activity, happiness and mental health, he said.

The political will is there with the City of Winnipeg and the Province of Manitoba having a recreation policy and working groups trying "to move the needle so everybody could have access to recreation," said Argueta.

The University of Winnipeg's new Health and RecPlex opened on Spence Street in September. Its goal was to create "a welcoming, safe place where inner-city youth, new immigrants and other community members could play, dance and meet for free."

Close to 1,000 people from the community are now using the multi-purpose fields and community gyms every week. In north Winnipeg, the $20.5-million expansion of the Garden City Community Centre with a 120,000-square-foot indoor field that can be split into four smaller fields, is expected to open later this year.

"It's gonna take a couple of generations to really see the shift, but we're on the right path for some of those things," said Argueta.

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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