Having grown up in Boxford, a neighboring suburb of Lawrence, where opportunities to participate in sports were everywhere, I was surprised to learn while working for after-school program, YDO, that Lawrence did not support any travel soccer. I would meet kids on a daily basis and ask them if they played sports. Some of the boys told me about in-town baseball or basketball, while most girls said they “didn’t play any sports.” It was obvious to me why Lawrence High – at that time – never fielded a girls’ soccer team, despite a school enrollment of 3,000.

Supported and encouraged by my family, including my mother, Ellen, who was my youth coach before I captained the University of Michigan Women’s Soccer team in 1996, we started our soccer journey in 2007 with 12 girls from 4 middle schools. These wide-eyed girls began with indoor recreational play, regular team practices and local travel tournaments, quickly gravitating to this new team concept, naming themselves the “Lawrence Wolves.” As expected, they were exceptionally challenged, playing against teams with far more experience and resources. Victory was not something that came easily. The girls, however, were learning valuable lessons; the importance of teamwork, dedication and good sportsmanship. Finally, after much education and hard work, the Wolves proudly qualified for competition in the 2009 Essex County Youth Soccer league, becoming the City’s FIRST-ever girl’s soccer team.

Buoyed by the success of this first group, and the addition of compassionate adult mentors and coaches, we expanded our teams and began supplementing kids’ sports experiences with “off the field” programs that increase academic performance, improve health and cultivate leadership skills.

Today, we boost an 8-year track record running programs in Lawrence and a well-developed philosophy and working model of how soccer can be used as a tool to stabilize and improve kids’ lives, and combat social issues like childhood obesity and the disproportionate achievement gap linked to low income, minority populations.

Our progress has been extraordinary since our official incorporation in 2011. At that time, we were reaching 300 elementary and middle school students and our presence in the schools was limited to one school partner. Fast forward 5 years and we are impacting more than 2,000 students, ages 4-18, and working with 8 public schools, bringing critical sport, movement and nutrition initiatives to students during their school-day.

Consider the narrative of Oriagna Inirio, who began her journey with us on that first girls travel team 8 years ago. She came to us from a low income, Spanish speaking household, with no prior sports experience. Now a freshman at St. Anselm University*, Oriagna returns over the summer and winter months to work our camps and clinics as a “coach-mentor,” instructing first-time Beyond Soccer elementary school players. Oriagna’s development as a student athlete and confident young woman has been inspiring, and she credits her success to her “Beyond Soccer family, that has been encouraging and connecting her to opportunities every step of the way.”

Narratives like these keep us fighting for resources so we can pull more young kids into our Beyond Soccer “family”,providing them with the long term support, tools and self-confidence needed to be successful in today’s world. Please join us in reaching more kids like Oriagna! – Stephanie McArdle

*Oriagna, prior to attending St. Anselm University in fall 2016, was an honor roll student, and soccer and track & field captain at Fryeburg Academy (Maine).