Foster children play like kids at GCU soccer camp
Story by Jeannette Cruz
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
The four foster children-turned-budding soccer stars thanks to a GCU Goalkeeper Camp scholarship got more than they thought possible. It was more than just a new soccer ball for continuing practice, and more than just new friends, but something more important: They experienced the chance to be a kid again.
For instance, Joshua Layton, who felt insecure running with his teammates, found a unique thrill as goalkeeper after GCU men’s soccer coach Schellas Hyndman encouraged him to give it a try. In the new role, he hurled himself across the goal, leapt high in the air to catch balls and shouted at his teammates. He owned it.
Fernando Ibarra, who at first was too timid to reach out to new friends, grew out of his shy shell. During his final game, he patted his teammate on the back after making a good pass and Hyndman watched proudly.
“You see that? He’s interacting,” Hyndman said. “It’s funny to think that when I first talked to him he said he felt like none of the kids would like him.”
Bryan Martinez, who never imagined he’d get to play on a team, was all smiles even behind the drops of sweat. “It’s been fun,” he said, showing off his new tricks. But he admitted he needed a lot more practice to be as quick as his favorite soccer player, Neymar.
And Devon Connelly, who hid behind his cap at the beginning of camp, surprised Hyndman one day when he left his cap at home and even kicked a soccer ball off of Hyndman’s feet shouting, “Ha! I got you, coach.”
“I don’t think these boys have been told many positive things in their life,” Hyndman said. “When I talk to them it’s a very simple conversation — have they made friends? How was practice? Did they enjoy themselves? I talk to him as if they were my sons and I never go into their personal lives.”
Though there are many reasons why a child may be placed in foster care, a large number of cases are due to neglect and abuse, according to Rain Hernandez, outreach coordinator at Arizonans for Children. Currently, the tweens live in local group homes with a handful of other kids.
Will they miss the camp?
“A lot,” Fernando said. “but I think we’re going to come back to watch GCU play.”
One of the many key components of the camp is the joy that surrounds it – from the coaches, to the staff, parents and families, said Ben Paneccacio a second-year GCU assistant coach, and one of the loudest on the field.
GCU assistant coach Brent Erwin said while everyone got better at soccer, these four kids got better as kids.
In fact, three of them tried to “meg” him. “It was great,” he said.
Last week, after the Phoenix Foster Festival, the four athletes were given the opportunity to experience the GCU Goalkeeper Camp.
“I think that day we all realized how extremely special it was to see so many smiles,” Hyndman said, thinking back to the Phoenix Foster Carnival. “We established these scholarships so that we could invite some of those kids onto our camp.”
The four signed up through mentors at Arizonans for Children, the local nonprofit that facilitates opportunities for more than 16,000 children in foster care in Arizona.Jo
The application process included a 100-word essay scored on four categories: appreciation for the opportunity to attend camp, an interest in soccer, personal knowledge and experience in soccer, and character.
Initially, Hyndman had only two scholarships to award, but in the end he said he felt touched by their eagerness and dedication. In one entry that stood out most to him, one of the tweens even shared that he was born in Guatemala and had a twin brother he hadn’t met since he was adopted when he was 10 months old.
Debbie Accomazzo, the University’s community outreach manager, also took part in the selection process, but she was not surprised by Hyndman’s final decision.
“It seemed like the common thread was that soccer allowed each of them a little bit of an escape from life circumstances they could not control,” she said. “Soccer seems to be the one way these kids can forget everything that is going on and concentrate on something that they can work on for themselves, and (Hyndman) really does give more than he takes – from a simple conversation, to how he wants to contribute to the people around him, to the community, to the sport of soccer …”
“I think you may have caught my reaction,” Hernandez said. “It was so unexpected. … I know that for them to receive something that is solely theirs is special because right now they don’t get anything to themselves, they don’t get that one-on-one time with anybody, and to see that they won this for themselves — it’s amazing and we owe it all to GCU.”
Contact Jeannette Cruz at (602) 639-6631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.