One man works to create Unity on the soccer field
on June 25, 2010
It’s hard to catch Steve Sparkes these days between World Cup games, building a tasting room at Linden Street Brewery in West Oakland, and organizing a week-long free soccer camp for over sixty kids. Sparkes’ morning schedule during camp week—held June 21 to 25—goes something like this: Wake up to watch the 4 am World Cup game, then catch as much of the 7 am game as possible before rushing off to the Oakland Technical High School field to greet the campers at 9 am.
Now in its third year, the “My Yute” soccer camp offers skills training to young players, while exposing them to the cultural diversity of the game and spreading, Sparkes hopes, his passion for the sport. Sparkes is so committed to the camp that he gave up tickets to this year’s Cup in South Africa in order to keep the camp dates consistent with the first two years—the first week of summer. But he’s developed a strategy to catch as many games as possible on TV.
“My truck is all packed [with equipment] and ready, so I don’t have to do much to set up the field,” Sparkes said seriously as he outlined his plan recently at the Commonwealth Café and Public House in North Oakland. “Then I do the camp, and when it’s over I can catch the second half of the third game somewhere,” said Sparkes.
The Jamaican-born, longtime Oakland resident admitted the schedule was exhausting, but how else could he satisfy the many facets of his passion for soccer—playing, watching, and introducing Oakland youth who otherwise might not have access to the beautiful game? “Someone said to me, ‘What’s wrong with you?’” he recalls. “I said ‘I have the fever.’”
The way he describes it, Sparkes has had the fever since birth—first playing soccer with other kids in front of his family’s home in Trench Town, the West Kingston neighborhood famous for producing Bob Marley, but also for its violence and poverty. Later, he played for the Cavaliers in Jamaica’s national soccer league, then for Bay Area A Division teams, the San Jose Pumas, Foster City FC, and now Africari—all the while engaging in impromptu pickup games wherever in the world they’re to be found.
“Soccer is a language,” said Sparkes, who traveled extensively, and played with the locals, during his more than 20 years working as ground crew for United Airlines. “You change a lot of stigma by playing with people in different places,” he said.
With all those years playing on all those different fields, Sparkes’s fondest soccer memories come from his childhood street, Unity Lane. “It’s kind of a corny story,” said Sparkes with a chuckle, as he launched into a tale that one can imagine takes place in narrow, urban streets and empty lots all across the soccer-crazed countries of the world.
Kids of all ages from different neighborhoods would come to play soccer together on Unity Lane, detached from the political violence and economic hardships that plagued Jamaica in the late 1960s and 1970s (and still do today). Other kids wou
ld hoist themselves up onto a ledge on the wall outside Sparkes’ grandparents’ house on 4 Unity Lane to watch games being played on the street below—an ideal makeshift field complete with spectator seating. “They call it the grandstand,” said Sparkes.
Add a nearly unfathomable patience from the adults in Sparkes’s household for yelling, scuffling children, and the spot became what he calls “the community center.”
“I had such a beautiful childhood,” said Sparkes, who’s now 46 years old, tall and athletic. “I wanted to create the same thing here.”
On a long flight back to California after watching the 2006 World Cup in Germany, he decided to do it. Sparkes went to his fellow players at the Africari soccer club and asked them to help him set up a free soccer camp for East Bay
youth from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. He quickly got a group behind the idea, and they began raising money to make it happen.
“I created a set of hats and shirts and started selling them to my friends to raise money,” said Sparkes. He also asked friends for donations and held fundraisers.
The My Yute camp teaches kids aged 6 to 12 the fundamentals of soccer and, with equal focus, says Sparkes, diversity and healthy living. Along with shooting and passing skills, the camp sprinkles in education on nutrition and different cultures. “A small part of it is soccer,” Sparkes said of the camp. “It’s about life.” The coaches are all volunteer, many of them Sparkes’ soccer buddies.
“My yute” is a Jamaican term used among friends or toward young people, something like “my boy” or “brother.” The name fits the warm, non-competitive style of the camp.
This week, kids enrolled in the camp did drills and played scrimmages. On Wednesday, the entire camp played a mock World Cup tournament, complete with t-shirts from this year’s competing countries. The week culminates with lunch catered by a chef who will talk about nutrition with the campers.
Kai Blackwood and Cava Menzies, parents who both have 6-year-olds attending the camp, chatted on the sidelines the first day of practice. “I think it’s a great opportunity to introduce her to the game,” said Blackwood of her daughter, Nina. “It’s a great, no pressure environment.”
Both Blackwood and Menzies found out about the camp via word of mouth, which seems to be My Yute’s modus operandi. Sparkes employs his network of friends—especially those who are teachers and coaches—throughout Oakland to identify kids who might be interested in the camp and, if necessary, help parents fill out the application form.
Blackwood and Menzies, whose children both go to Cleveland Elementary School, east of Lake Merritt, said they were thankful the camp is free and, given the lack of similar opportunities, were surprised their kids got a spot.
In fact, Sparkes said he hasn’t yet turned down an application for the camp, and thanks to a large group
of volunteers, the camp maintains a daily ratio of around 8 players to one coach. Many of the coaches also play for teams in the Africari soccer club, and some coach youth leagues in the area.
“This is what I love to do, giving my time for a program like this,” said Glenn Van Straatum, who directs coaching for the elite Bay Oaks youth soccer club and the Jack London Youth Soccer Sports League, and volunteers at the My Yute camp.
From the beginning, Sparkes’s vision was to hold a high quality soccer camp with coaches like Van Straatum, and he wanted to provide access to those coaches to kids from Oakland’s diverse neighborhoods and backgrounds, regardless of their ability, or lack of, to pay for training.
“People said, ‘Why don’t you create a camp in West Oakland?’ But that’s not what I wanted to do,” Sparkes said. His goal, rather, was to ignore socioeconomic status, not cater to kids with low ones.
My Yute attracts players from neighborhoods as diverse as East and West Oakland, Piedmont, Montclair and Rockridge. “The idea is to bring them together for one week, and take the money out of it,” said Sparkes. “I never felt like I was locked out [of soccer] because my parents didn’t have money.”
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case in this country. Soccer, like many youth sports, can be rough on parents’ pocketbooks. Registration fees for Oakland leagues run around $100 to $200 a season for recreational play, plus the cost of uniforms and gear. If your child gets serious about the game, tournament costs come in—travel and sometimes hotels—plus the option of intensive, and expensive soccer camps. Meanwhile, “everywhere else in the world, kids play in the street,” said Sparkes.
In big soccer nations, like Brazil, The Netherlands and other European and Latin American countries, clubs recruit young players and pay for them, not the other way around.
Van Straatum, who’s from Suriname, grew up playing in the Dutch soccer system, in which clubs fund training for young, promising players by selling their stars to professional teams. “The goal is to sell one or two or three players a year for $1 million each, and that’s how the youth program gets paid for,” he said.
My Yute is not looking to make stars. “Parents want their kids to go and perform, and be the next Pelé,” Sparkes said of other camps. “This camp is not going to create the next Pelé.”
Sparkes does, however, hope to spread some of his zeal for soccer to Oakland youth, and eventually expand the program to other parts of the Bay Area.
He’d also like to raise scholarship money for talented players who can’t afford to join the top clubs. But Sparkes is struggling just to pay for field rental, snacks and equipment for this year’s one week of camp. He encourages kids to take a ball home at the end of the week, while extra balls, and sometimes uniforms, get donated to kids in Jamaica, or this year, Peru.
Ultimately, Sparkes’s dream is a simple one: “Twenty years from now, I want to be sitting on the island [Jamaica], and I would just love to have my phone ring and have a kid call and say, ‘You know, I want to do a camp like yours. Can you help me out?’ That would be my greatest dream.”
If you’d like to donate to My Yute or find out more about the program, check out their website: MyYuteSoccer.org.
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