Nine years ago, Sgt. Manny Garcia saw a half-dozen kids hanging out along Everett’s gritty Casino Road, looking like they were headed for trouble, so he challenged them to a pick-up game of soccer in the adjacent field.
“They needed something to do, someone to show them the way,” said Garcia.
The Everett Police sergeant played professional soccer in Mexico City as a young man. The kids were, apparently, pretty impressed with his skills.
“The next week I went back and the six kids had turned to twelve,” he said. “It was very exciting.”
Garcia put together an annual soccer camp, drawing more and more kids each year. Five years ago he got his department to sign on as a sponsor.
“That year there were 256 kids here ready to play,” said Garcia.
On Monday, the 9th anniversary of his camp, there were more than 500 aspiring soccer stars lined up ready to play in the Everett’s cold summer rain – on the very same field where he played that first pick-up game with the six street kids.
“We tell them, you have to be a good person. You have to be a good son or daughter. We let them know this community is counting on them,” said Garcia. “The peripheral benefit is the parents see that and they become better parents.”
Everett’s Casino Road is largely a low-income immigrant community that is no stranger to crime and gangs. It doesn’t take much to hear stories of troubled childhoods coming from the kids kicking around soccer balls.
“In my school I'm kind of afraid because there's gangs,” said 12 year old Brian Vargas. “My cousin is in jail right now,” said 11-year-old Edgar Martinez. “It’s scary because he was a really good student and then he got into drugs.”
Garcia, a 25-year Everett P.D. veteran knows those stories all too well. He knew he had to do something to connect with these kids.
“This is better and more effective than booking every kid in jail,” he said. “They deserve a chance.”
The week-long camp at Walter Hall Park costs 20-dollars a day. It runs from 8am to 2pm. Kids ages 7 to 14 are invited. Breakfast and lunch are provided. Garcia is hoping even more kids will show up as the week progresses. For now, he thinks of his growing list of success stories.
“There was one 13 year old boy. He was headed to jail. Then one day a little kid he was helping scored a goal and ran and gave him a big hug. He told me that was a game changer for him. Now he’s in college.”
Looking out over the soccer field and street corner that started it all, he said, “This is my turf. This is my community.”