Jeremy and Amanda knew that physical activity was important, but they did not know joining an urban soccer league in downtown Vancouver would be so rewarding.
They are only two of the many active players in the Vancouver Street Soccer League (VSSL), a community sport program run largely in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to support individuals who face barriers to participating in conventional organized athletics.
“VSSL is a really important thing to have in a community where people are stuggling with at-risk behaviours, or they can’t afford to join a sport or they just don’t feel welcome,” said Jeremy. “The league accepts everyone who wants to join. I’ve made so many good friends through the league, it really feels like a family. I’m always telling other people they should come out and give it a try.”
VSSL began 10 years ago as a mental-health program in the Downtown Eastside and has expanded considerably since then. It has partnered with several community organizations, including the Portland Hotel Society, the Carnegie Community Centre, Covenant House, the Aboriginal Friendship Centre, WorkBC and others.
Over the years, approximately 325 youth from Covenant House have participated in the VSSL program, as well as hundreds of adults from at-risk groups, homeless shelters, Indigenous and immigrant/refugee communities. VSSL conducts special practice sessions for female and LGBTQ2S+ players in a secure and welcoming setting.
“We have a wide variety of people from many different backgrounds participating in this league. We have come to understand just how important the VSSL community is to these players,” said Sarah White, VSSL’s president. “We practise every Thursday morning and every Sunday morning, without fail – we pride ourselves on our commitment to always be there for our players.”
The social and cultural benefits of VSSL extend beyond athletics. The league invites players into a family of peers who are also trying to change their lives for the better, which can be a powerful force to inspire success.
Players support and encourage each other, and espouse VSSL’s guiding principles of fair play, community building, supportive partnerships, and health and safety. League volunteers provide informal mentoring to players, including advice and support in pursuit of employment opportunities and further education.
“Since joining VSSL, I’ve seen a big improvement to my fitness, my mental health and just my overall feeling about myself,” said Amanda. “That’s what sport can do for you – you get a solid foundation to build a better lifestyle for yourself.”
White said, “Many of our players are First Nations, and we also have volunteers and supporters from First Nations. VSSL is regularly invited to the Father’s Day weekend soccer tournament hosted by the ‘Namgis First Nation each June at Alert Bay. Each year, it has proven to be profound and life changing for many of our league’s members. The village parade and traditional longhouse ceremonies that kick off the tournament resonate deeply with many of our players, particularly those who rarely leave the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.
“We have a growing number of recent immigrant and refugee players from every corner of the world. Soccer is the common language. With support from our sponsors, we are very excited to expand the league’s programming to increase access to as many people as possible.”
This spring, the Province provided a $5,000 grant to VSSL to expand its programming to support a women's/LGBTQ2S+ team. The program is supported through the BC Sport Participation Program (BCSPP), funded equally by the governments of Canada and British Columbia, which includes sport programs, activities, and coach and leadership training in communities throughout B.C.
The BCSPP also funds the Urban Native Youth Association in Downtown Eastside Vancouver with $50,000 annually for its youth sport and recreation programs. Activities range from ju-jitsu and canoeing to lacrosse and wrestling, and are provided to about 700 youth annually. Youth are also offered training in the National Coaching Certificate Program, first aid, the High Five quality standard for children's programs, belay and canoeing.
Vancouver Street Soccer League: https://vancouverstreetsoccer.com
BC Sport Participation Program: https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2019TAC0102-001733