Field of Dreams

Coach Robert doing drills with young soccer players.

Soccer helps create community

The empty, lush grass field of Burke Mountain’s Victoria Park left Robert Birungi wondering who owned it. In his native Uganda, he says only the very wealthy could own or afford to play on grounds like this.

“I asked my wife are we allowed to use this,” Robert says. “She said yes, it’s built for the community.”

Every summer for the last three years, Robert has been teaching his five boys, ages 4-11, how to play soccer using the field. Neighbourhood children soon began asking their parents if they could play but, like Robert, many thought there would be a fee.

“We were like no – everyone’s welcome,” says Carli Travers, Robert’s wife.

Being new residents to an area, rainy weather and long commute times for work all contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness. In fact, more people than ever are reporting they feel lonely – 23% of Metro Vancouver residents say they are spending more time alone than they would like according to a 2017 Vancouver Foundation study.

Sensing a deep need, the couple posted a call to see if parents and guardians were interested in a free drop-in style soccer program for kids on Burke Mountain Community Facebook page. They got a huge response.

soccer ball

“People were super interested, but they didn’t feel right not paying,” Carli says. The solution: donations to Abetavu, a community development organization, for orphaned and vulnerable Ugandan children the couple founded during the 13 years Carli lived in Africa.

Making lives happier

Here in Coquitlam, kids are benefiting too. Every Monday and Wednesday during this past summer between 3-4:30 pm, parents dropped their children off to play soccer. The kids did drills and learned skills.

Liliana’s six-year-old son Daniel had a great time at the outreach program. “He loves it. We love it,” she says. The drop-in, by donation nature of the program made it easy for Lilana and Daniel to get involved. But it was so much more than soccer.

“Coach Robert is really good with the skills he teaches,” Liliana says. “He doesn’t just teach the soccer part, he also teaches about self-esteem, which I really like.”

Another local parent, Clayton agrees. Hockey used to be his son’s favourite sport. After a summer with Coach Robert, it’s soccer all the way. 

“I like the confidence he’s gotten from it and the sense of identity,” Clayton says. “I really like the way Coach Robert interacts with the kids. He’s firm, but very supportive.” 

The soccer program also gave his son a safe space to grow. “It’s been great,” Clayton says. “They’re developing a community. You can see it amongst the kids.” 

As many as 55 kids showed up to play at the summer sessions confirming the couple were onto something.

“We need to go back to the old school ways where people just show up at a park and know that they’re free to join,” Carli says.

Hi Neighbour makes communities healthier

sliced watermelon

Thanks to support from United Way’s Burke Mountain Hi Neighbour initiative, kids got healthy snacks after every practice as well as receiving Hi Neighbour pinafores.  

The Hi Neighbour Initiative connects with talented, passionate individuals like Robert and Carli, who care about their community.  United Way helps them make a difference in their community in ways that matter most to them. 

Hi Neighbour Initiatives are underway in eight neighbourhoods across the Lower Mainland including Cedar Valley in Mission, Clayton Heights in Surrey, Edmonds in Burnaby, Lower Lonsdale in North Vancouver, Sardis in Chilliwack, Sunset in Vancouver and Willoughby in Langley. 

group standing together

Community Engagement Specialist Amber with Carli and her son, Kingston.

“The goal of the initiative is to help build connections between neighbours, children and families,” says United Way Community Engagement Specialist Amber Gregory. “When communities are stronger and more inclusive, everyone benefits.”

“We just love the [Hi Neighbour] support so much. It just makes us feel so good that we have a partner,” Carli says. “We’re hopeful with this partnership that we can reach out to more people in the community.”

The soccer program continues Mondays and Wednesdays at Victoria Park this Fall.

Got an idea?

Do you have a simple project or idea to support your community? United Way’s Local Love Fund is available in a number of Lower Mainland neighbourhoods. Check out our Hi Neighbour web page to see if we’re in your community.

Want to see Hi Neighbour in your community?

Creating connections with your neighbours is joyful and inspiring. We have experience and know-how to help support your dreams for your community. Drop us a line and tell us why.