A group of Abilene refugee children spent last week playing, making friends and learning new skills during a free soccer camp at Abilene Christian University, thanks to a collaboration between local volunteers, the ACU women’s soccer team and the International Rescue Committee.
Drs. Heidi and Jason Morris both teach at ACU. Heidi is an associate professor of marriage and family studies. Jason is dean of the Honors College and director of the Office of Major Scholarships and has recently been named the executive director of the Center for Building Community and director of the Lynay program. Outside of work, however, much of their time is spent in soccer-related activities with their three boys, and those connections to soccer and to a friend in the local IRC office sparked an idea.
“Soccer is a universal sport,” Heidi said. “Since we have a sizable refugee population in Abilene, it felt like this would be a good way to do outreach. Lots of the kids don’t have much to do in summer.”
The Morris family teamed up with Susanna Lubanga, deputy director at the Abilene IRC, to put together plans for the camp in the summer of 2019. The IRC secured donations to cover jerseys, equipment and water for campers, and the Morrises reached out to ACU women’s soccer players to provide coaching and skills. About 30 children of local refugee families attended in that first year. In 2020, the camp was cancelled due to COVID-19. This year, however, it was back on, and about 35-40 kids participated. Stations and activities were planned and directed by Emily Heidman, a senior psychology major from Rowlett, and Ellen Joss, a senior marketing major from Louisville, Kentucky, both members of ACU’s women’s soccer team.
“Being able to watch the kids get super excited not only for themselves but also their teammates was something I won’t forget,” Heidman said. “Soccer has so much potential to bring a positive atmosphere that is encouraging and motivating, which is exactly what was taking place at this camp.”
Lubanga said the refugee families who have been resettled to Abilene were excited for their kids to have something active to do instead of sitting at home, and many of the kids looked forward to soccer camp all summer.
“It’s a unifying opportunity to use soccer to bring people together,” Heidi said. “It’s just lovely to see all these different kids coming together. Bigger kids helping younger kids, everyone getting a chance to be on a team, cheer each other on, and just enjoy playing and being kids. This has been a type of hospitality that we could offer, and it’s beautiful.”