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A Camp For the Future

Thursday, June 27, 2013
Hanover — Mary McVeigh is trying to cram as much Upper Valley into her Nicaraguan guests as she can this week. They hiked Mount Moosilauke yesterday, downpour and all. The itinerary calls for farmers’ markets, kayaking, miniature golf and soft ice cream, too.

What the former Dartmouth College women’s soccer standout wants to show more than anything, however, is how to build a future.

The executive director of Boston-based Soccer Without Borders, McVeigh is back at her alma mater, playing tour guide and mentor. She and 10 soccer officials from Nicaragua — including two members of the Central American country’s women’s national team — have been observing and participating in two youth soccer camps, with the goal of taking organizational lessons learned here and applying them back home.

This goes well beyond the pitch. SWB employs the sport as a means of change for youths — both those new to the United States, as well as those in a pair of overseas initiatives — to “overcome obstacles to growth, inclusion and personal success,” according to the organization’s mission statement.

“One of our core principles is authenticity,” the 2003 Dartmouth graduate explained this week. “Part of this exchange is to explore how we can expand.”

SWB is the brainchild of Ben Gucciardi, a former Lehigh University soccer player who founded the organization in 2006. McVeigh — an all-Ivy League and all-American midfielder who played professionally in the final season of the now-defunct Women’s United Soccer Association — learned about SWB while pursuing a master’s degree and coaching the women’s soccer team at Lehigh. She helped start an SWB girls soccer branch in the Nicaraguan city of Granada in 2008. At first a volunteer, she joined the organization full-time two years later.

The Nicaragua program is a significant part of her life now. Her year usually includes at least three trips to Granada, a city of 80,000 lying on the shoreline of Lake Nicaragua, to work with authorities there.

“It seemed like such an intersection of everything that I cared about,” McVeigh said. “A lot of players, post-playing career, try to find a place for soccer in their lives. As soon as I heard about it and read about it, I knew that was something I wanted to pursue.

“Coaching is very appealing, and I loved college coaching. … I was really enjoying that, but in the long term it didn’t feel like a career to me. When I read about Soccer Without Borders, I felt that could be something I could really invest in, in the long term.”

This week marks the back end of a two-part exchange aided by the U.S. State Department. The Nicaraguan contingent is learning things applicable to soccer (strategies, practice plans), but also things (budgeting, website design) that can be applied to building opportunities for young girls at home.

The exchange began in February, when McVeigh accompanied a team of graduated NCAA soccer players for a Nicaraguan tour, a trip that included clinics for coaches and children as well as matches against the national women’s team. That tour attracted the interest of Nicaragua striker Ninoska Solis, who has joined this week’s return visit.

Women’s soccer has made great strides in her home country in the past few years, Solis said. For instance, the country has qualified for the final regional tournament for the 2015 Women’s World Cup next summer, a first.

There is still much to be accomplished. Solis wants to help continue the process.

“The truth is the level (of play) is not very high,” Solis said in Spanish, translated by McVeigh. “The league is helping and there are some competitive teams, but it needs more support. It doesn’t have a lot of support.”

Born in Oakland, Calif., SWB now operates out of seven U.S. cities in addition to its programs in Nicaragua and Uganda. In each case, Soccer Without Borders identifies “a population that has a need for opportunities that’s sort of being left out,” McVeigh said.

The game’s universal appeal makes it an ideal vehicle for opening doors.

“(We) try to transfer that into inclusion in the larger society,” McVeigh added. “If they’re missing (opportunities) on the soccer field, they’re likely missing them off the soccer field as well.

“Here in the U.S., we work largely with refugees, (asylum seekers) and immigrants, boys and girls. … There’s a lot of families here trying to build a new life. Often, soccer is something that is very familiar to them and a great way to transition, have a peer group, learn English, have a place to practice English that is safe and have connections to mentors that can help them navigate the new social system.”

While soccer-centered, this week’s exchange has a cultural element as well. It began and will end in Boston, with visits to a Red Sox baseball game and Breakers women’s soccer match included.

Solis would like to take the lessons of the exchange and open a school for youths in her barrio, teaching them what she’s learned. “I’ve seen a lot of things in a little bit of time,” she said. “It would be wonderful to be a coach.”

When she was younger, McVeigh undervalued the link between her growing opportunities in sport and those that came outside of sport. Having a better understanding of that now, she’s eager to use Soccer Without Borders to bring those experiences to the world in general.

“You’ve got to do that creatively and with a lot of understanding,” she said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. …

“A generation of women leaders has come up in sport, but also in other arenas, in business, in engineering. That’s what these women want. Anything we can do to help support that, we’ll focus on our niche and do the best we can.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at or 603-727-3226.

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