Stand Together boosts group that helps kids through soccer

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Thirteen-year-old Mohamed Abdullahi already has big plans for the summer.

The gregarious youngster is going to be meeting up twice a week with a group that helps welcome and acclimate refugee and immigrant children to Portland through soccer.

The organization, 4 Worlds United Soccer Alliance, is getting support from the local pro teams, the Timbers and the Thorns. Two of the kids have even gone on to play in the Timbers Academy for elite young players.

"It's fun, everybody coming out and having fun together and playing soccer, our favorite sport," said Abdullahi, who came to the United States from Kenya when he was 5. "It's something that's just part of our lives."

4 Worlds United Soccer Alliance was founded five years ago to help break down the barriers that keep kids from integrating and interacting with the new culture around them — barriers like language and poverty. The group also aids children from low-income families.

The organization runs a summer soccer program, like the one Abdullahi is joining, and then helps connect kids with club teams if they have an affinity for the game.

A group of dedicated volunteers help coach and even drive the kids to practices. Funds raised by the nonprofit pay for equipment and cleats and then later, the fees associated with playing for a club team, like travel costs.

4 Worlds United expects to work with 200-250 youth this summer, said Mark Verna, the organizations founder and president.

"Part of our mission statement is we allow them to use the currency they arrive with. They don't arrive with money, they don't have the language, they don't know the culture. But they know soccer," Verna said. "They can go out and express themselves and make friends and join the culture through this doorway. We want to remove the obstacles that are in the way of them being able to play this game."

Verna was inspired years ago when his son was playing rec soccer with three Somali Bantu kids. But when the players jumped to competitive soccer, the three needed rides. So Verna, an architect, obliged.

One of those kids is now headed to college on a full-ride scholarship, Verna said. The two others were on a team that won an under-15 club national championship.

Earlier this week a few of the Thorns and Timbers players, along with others who work for the two teams, played a loose game of soccer with a number of the 4 Worlds United children as part of Stand Together Week.

It is the fifth anniversary of the teams' weeklong community outreach program to benefit dozens of nonprofit projects across the city. The idea is to not only help complete the projects through manpower, but draw attention to worthy organizations and perhaps spur volunteerism.

The teams' front office, the players and coaches and even the supporters join in each year.

Allie Long, who plays for the Thorns of the National Women's Soccer League, was just back from a pair of matches with the U.S. national team as it prepares for the Rio Olympics.

"Just so cool to come together as a community and see everyone that's involved with it. These kids are amazing," she said. "It makes me so happy to be able to make them happy and enjoy the time with them."

Her coach, Mark Parsons, agreed. He worked with a group of the smaller children, cheering with them when one finally broke through and scored.

"I think when you look back and see how just a few hours has really made someone's day, and hopefully pushed them toward exercise and this great sport, that's a great thing," Parsons said.

Abdullahi lives across the street from the north Portland park where 4 Worlds United will hold one of its summer programs. As he lingered on the field following the match with the Stand Together volunteers, he politely thanked one of organizers.

The message of the day was certainly not lost on the teenager.

"If you have a whole team and you work together, you can win," he said, clutching the soccer ball that one of the volunteers gave him.