More than a game: action on the pitch spurs big changes off the field

BY DREW A. PENNER, ECHO JUNE 28, 2013

Mike Reitsma, 43, sports a flowing curly mullet straight out of the 80s and lives in a tent at Maple Pool Campsite next to the open field where he plays soccer. “It reminds me of my childhood,” he says. “I played soccer all the time.” Recalling those days is something he doesn’t mind doing. It was a simpler time when he didn’t have to worry about trying to put a roof over his head.

Things have certainly gotten harder for the lanky man with an upbeat personality. But thanks to the efforts of outreach workers he and his Maple Pool United teammates will have the opportunity to challenge squads from Calgary, Kelowna, Vancouver and more at the homeless street soccer Western Canadian Qualifier. The June 29 daytime event to be held at Lewis Park will be a competition for spots on the national team and the chance to head to Pozna, Poland for the 2013 World Cup.

Reitsma has only been playing with Maple Pool United for the past couple weeks, but in that time he’s come to see the benefit of the activity. “It gives some purpose to a homeless guy,” he says. “It’s just fun.”

Heath Young, 35, lives at the campground in a kit-camper. He says the sport gives him a chance to press the refresh button. “It’s a nice way to move back into life,” he says. “It’s actually given me a chance to take a step forward instead of a step back.” He had been living in a house recently until “things went sideways.” After having struggled to keep his alcoholism at bay for years, he relapsed. “It’s been years in the making,” he says. “It snuck back in and got me.” But now playing soccer has given him new hope. “It’s something that helped save my butt,” he says. “It was a positive out. It got me up and going with life.”

Todd Brown, 42, considers himself “borderline” homeless, since he’s got a place to crash in Courtenay for now but wasn’t doing so well just months ago. “You just feel hopeless,” he says. “You’ve got your highs and you’ve got your lows.” For him playing on Maple Pool United has given him something to strive towards. “It’s a routine,” he says. “It gets me off the couch.”

Grant Shilling is the outreach worker who put the “United” behind the Maple Pool name, giving marginalized individuals a positive outlet for what too often manifests itself as negative energy. “This is a chance to develop a sense of discipline,” he says of the weekly practices where drugs and alcohol use is not permitted and emphasis is placed on punctuality. “It offers an hour and a half where they can forget all the stuff that’s dragging them down.” Shilling, of the Dawn to Dawn: Action on Homelessness Society, hopes the Western Canadian Qualifier Homeless World Cup will help the public better understand the challenges facing vulnerable local residents who may not be able to boast a fixed address. “I think it’s going to be a way to signal to the Comox Valley a different way to look at the homeless population,” he says. “The fact that it’s happening is a success already.”

He also hopes the tournament will shine a light on the role Maple Pool Campsite plays in the community, at a time when the City of Courtenay has decided to continue their legal battle with the campground. “It’s kind of the Last Chance Motel for a lot of people,” he says. “Having the team here was a way of advocating for the place.”

Jin Lin, president of the Comox Valley Multicultural and Immigrant Support Society, who owns the campground, says the public will also be welcome to attend a dinner at Maple Pool in the evening following the soccer action. “We think this is a chance to invite some people in the valley who would like to learn more about homelessness,” she says. “Whenever you see a homeless person on the street, most people will try to keep a little distance. “They also need to have a chance to be accepted again to our community.” The dinner costs $10 per adult and $5 per child under 10, with a 40 per cent discount given to multicultural society members. She says she can’t wait to see the event start to break down barriers between those who need help and those who have the ability to supply it. “You just have to open your heart,” she says. “They are the same as us just less fortunate. They need somebody to give them a hand to come back to the regular ordinary community.”

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