with gallery: Soccer tournament shows friendly rivalry between Sheriff's Department and homeless community
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One of the fields at Wide World Sports Center near Ann Arbor was dedicated Saturday to simultaneous four-versus-four street style soccer matches between the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department and former and current members of the homeless community.
The fourth annual "Beat the Streets with Soccer" match was also a fund-raiser to help Washtenaw County's Street Soccer Project Outreach Team (SSPORT) compete in the U.S. Cup tournament against teams of homeless players in New York City.
In addition to teams from the sheriff's department and two local homeless teams - with players who either are homeless now or within the past year - there were four homeless teams from Ft. Worth, Texas; St. Louis, Mo; Minneapolis, Minn., and Chicago competing in the Kevin Polk Memorial Midwest tournament.
SSPORT is connected with the Washtenaw County Homeless Project Outreach Team, which provides services to the homeless in the county. Three county employees, Linda Bacigalupi, James Bastian and Sara Silvennoinen, coach SSPORT.
"We practice every Thursday, at Wheeler Park in the summer and at WIde World Sports Center in the winter," said Silvennoinen, who says that some players are dealing with correctional services, while others may be coping with mental illness.
"This is a way for our clients to learn to work with and trust other people," she said. "It's a safe and positive place for them to be."
Silvennoinen says the coaches connect participants with services, and their goal is to get them off the streets.
Some of the SSPORT players had their first match of the day against the team from Chicago. They were fired up and victorious.
Soccer has been a big help to veteran Andrew Valdez.
"It helped get me off homelessness and hardships and taught me to work with a team," said Valdez. "I like the camaraderie."
Delbert Williams, Jr. says he's playing on SSPORT for two reasons: "I love to play soccer, and this has made me a better player."
"Soccer got me exercising again," said Mark Bowden. "The coaches helped me get a home and a job, and I've made new friends."
For the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department, Saturday's match was a way to get together on what Sheriff Jerry Clayton calls, "A non-enforcement issue."
"This is a positive, proactive event that shines the light on homelessness and galvanizes public support," he said.
Silvennoinen, an avid soccer player herself, says that they've opened their soccer teams up to people of every skill level.
"We make it fun," she said. "It's amazing to see the changes in people."
SSPORT depends on fundraisers and donations to get shoes and proper clothing for the participants and is currently raising money to fund the SSPORT team to travel to New York City where they will compete in the Street Soccer USA Cup this summer and vie to compete in the Homeless World Cup in Mexico City in the fall. To donate, send a check to SAWC FBO SSPORT at SSPORT, P.O. Box 8645, Ann Arbor, MI 48107.