On a recent, sunny Sunday afternoon, dozens of youth soccer teams were engaged in some pretty serious competition inside Plano's sizeable Russell Creek Park. Driving into the park, the scene wasn't unlike the one thousands of families from across the Metroplex witness every weekend. Youth soccer has long been a popular family-intensive activity, one that's often treated as something that can be taken for granted; something that will naturally occur during the course of a child's life, as it's indeed so prevalent in North Texas. But for the kids of one specific team playing on that day in north Plano, the chance to slip on a real uniform and play the beautiful game as a member of a real team is something that was far from assured in their recent past.
The two Vickery United soccer teams are comprised of boys that come from the homes of refugee families now living in the Vickery Meadow neighborhood in Dallas. The teams are a product of the Dallas-based Love Is Ministry, which focuses on the many needs of refugee families in that neighborhood, specifically. For decades now, Vickery Meadow, located just east of Central Expressway near Park Lane, has been a haven for refugee families from dozens of countries, looking for stability in a life that has been anything but stable after being ousted from countries such as Tanzania, Burma, Lebanon, as well as countries throughout Africa. Affordable apartments, easily accessed public transportation, and nearby schools have made Vickery Meadow as attractive to refugee families as any other single neighborhood in the United States.
With so many backgrounds represented in one neighborhood, common ground can be hard to come by in an urban block seemingly bound by a significant thread. Many of the people who live within yards of one another often can't carry on a conversation due to not speaking the language of the other. One evening, back in 2009, Vickery Meadow resident Danny Domingo caught a glimpse of an unspoken language that might be the most universal of communication across the globe.
"I was walking around the neighborhood," explains the boyish-looking, and seemingly always smiling, Domingo. "And I was praying that God would show me how I can impact my community, and I noticed these kids playing soccer. I could tell that most of the kids were speaking different languages from one another, and I realized that a soccer ball can bring kids from all kinds of circumstances together, and that it can be used for a greater cause."
Domingo got to pretty quick work on his vision for a mission. Though he admits to "not having any clue about soccer in any way," he started reaching out to people who did have some thoughts and tips. From there, Domingo began the Love Is Ministry, which focuses on having kids from the refugee families of Vickery Meadow gather to play soccer, and to hear bible lessons, among other services. He found help in unexpected ways which enabled the kids to have soccer shirts and other items they treasured and come relatively easy for many suburban youth teams. Initially, the soccer portion of the multi-functional ministry took shape in the form of casual clinics for the kids; not competing in organized leagues. For Domingo and the volunteers he recruited, the key was to simply get started, and let the kids play and hang-out together.
In 2012, a couple of volunteers joined Domingo and helped change the course of Love Is Ministry, and as a result, the group of neighborhood kids kicking around a ball has transformed into a formidable set of competitive soccer teams. Zach Loyd, a star defender for FC Dallas and his wife, Casey, a soccer star in both college and the pros also, had been hoping to use their gifts for good, and the kids and cause of Vickery United offered that chance.
"We've both seen what soccer has done for us," Zach Loyd says from the FC Dallas locker room inside Toyota Stadium just a couple of days before he would be awarded "Man of the Match" status after his team's gutsy draw against the rival club Seattle Sounders. "We love working with kids, and we were put in touch with Danny Domingo, who had us helping immediately. We didn't really know what we had gotten into, but pretty quickly, we were running soccer clinics in whichever parks we could find around town."
As a star player in Oklahoma during High School, a decorated player at the University of North Carolina, and now as a well-traveled member of America's top division of professional soccer, Loyd could easily be comfortable, and perhaps complacent, in knowing he's living the life many dream of, but it's the decidedly non-dreamlike life of the kids on his two teams that he finds himself more interested in.
"These are kids that have been forced out of their countries," says Loyd, who has also gained notoriety as one of the better-looking chaps in American soccer. "And just hearing their stories is pretty amazing. It's hard for me to fathom what they have gone through because it's the opposite of what I've ever known. Some of our kids are the primary man of their families, even though they're teenagers, and haven't had any sort of real childhood."
For a little over two years now, Zach and Casey, who have also gone to Honduras twice to take part in soccer-centric mission trips, have been coaches, mentors, and even drivers for the kids of Vickery United. Along with the couple buying a van to use for team transportation last year, a local welder volunteered his skills by crafting a full-sized goal that can be collapsed to fit into the van and planted in any field the team can find for practice. Even Loyd's high-profile employer has gotten in on the graciousness by hosting fundraising events, and donating shirts and cleats to the team.
With two competitive teams - an Under 16 club and an Under 18 one - Loyd is thrilled with the progress and the scope of the ministry that combines sports, spirituality and even academics, as the kids' report cards are checked regularly (the ministry has volunteer tutors help kids in specific areas of academic need). Because of the prominent faith-based aspect to the ministry, a good portion of time is indeed dedicated to lessons of the Christian faith, and how that foundation has served both Loyd and Domingo quite well in their own lives.
"We have a lot of different religions and faiths represented on our teams," explains Loyd. "We have kids with Muslim and Hindu backgrounds, and they know we respect their beliefs. We have a weekly Bible study but we don't force the kids to come, yet all of the kids come to it regularly. We spend a lot of time focusing on questions the kids have about the spiritual sides of things that are relevant to them in their everyday lives."
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Because God-fearing Christianity isn't a vital part of many families' lives in Vickery Meadow, converting every child that takes the pitch for the teams isn't necessarily the main goal.
"We're doing this to help give these kids more of a childhood than they've ever had before, and to also share our message with them," says Loyd as other members of FC Dallas come in and out of the locker room. "So, if they can come have fun, be a part of something that is truly their own, learn about Jesus, and be put on a path to college, then that's success in my eyes."
Though he's now seen the powerful, global impact of his favorite sport for many years, Loyd is still amazed at how it can help others and change so many lives.
"The fact we get to use soccer as a tool to help these kids is amazing," he says with a smile. "It's just cool to see what soccer can do."