State

Modesto soccer club offers safe place for kids to get their kicks

When Alfredo Navarro went looking for a soccer team for his sons to join 13 years ago, he couldn't find one in his south Modesto neighborhood.

It's a tough area of town plagued by gang violence, drugs and daily crime. Navarro wanted a soccer team so his sons could participate in something that would keep them out of reach of criminal influences and away from street violence.

The problem was nobody was willing to put the time and effort into creating a soccer team for kids in the neighborhood, so Navarro decided to take on the challenge.

"Somebody had to do it," said Navarro, 46, during a recent practice session of his soccer team, the Pumas. "If I don't do it, nobody else will."

His initial goal of creating a team for soccer players in the neighborhood has turned into a commitment to provide children a safe haven, where they can learn discipline, teamwork and sportsmanship.

Navarro started attending soccer-coaching seminars and attained all the requirements to form a south Modesto team that would compete in the Stanislaus Youth Soccer League.

School officials gave Navarro's team permission to practice in the soccer field between Hanshaw Middle School and Bret Harte Elementary School, so he started recruiting neighborhood kids to join.

He said he didn't really have to recruit, because word-of-mouth spread fast.

"They just started showing up at the practices," Navarro said about the neighborhood kids and their parents. "The parents want to keep their kids active, and they want to keep them somewhere safe."

His commitment is stronger than ever with three Pumas team for different age groups that play competitively in the spring. The teams are for players 12 and younger.

Navarro also has formed two Pumas teams for indoor soccer. The teams practice twice a week at The Salvation Army Red Shield Center in south Modesto.

He created the indoor teams three years ago to keep the kids playing soccer during the winter. The indoor teams allow beginning soccer players to join and improve their skills before the spring season.

The parents watch from the sidelines as their kids, girls and boys, play inside the Red Shield gym. The kids divide themselves into squads, and they all get a chance to play in the practice scrimmages.

Maria Navarro, 31, brought her son to join the team even though he never had played organized soccer. She is not related to the coach.

"One of the neighbors' kids told my son about the soccer team," she said in Spanish. "He's a good coach. My son didn't know how to play soccer at all, but now he's doing really well."

She said she wants her son to continue with the sport because it provides him a positive influence and role models in the coaches. Their south Modesto neighborhood, she said, is filled with a lot of negativity and crime.

"It's definitely better that they get involved in something positive at a young age," she said. "It's really bad out in the streets right now."

Most of the kids who play with Navarro's teams are from south Modesto.

"It's a poor neighborhood, and there really isn't much for them to do around here," the coach said. "It's better that they're here than staying at home playing video games."

Other than giving the kids an opportunity to stay physically fit, Navarro said the soccer teams keeps the kids away from the lure of gangs.

The neighborhood is a stronghold for the Norteños street gang.

The coach and most of his players live within a gang injunction zone, where some gang members have a curfew, can't wear gang colors and must follow other restrictions.

The injunction is part of a lawsuit used by Stanislaus County authorities to limit activities of specific gang members in the neighborhood.

Assistant coach Efrain Gonzalez knows all about the lure of gangs. As a youth in San Jose, Gonzalez became involved in gangs.

He left the gang life behind when his son was born, and he said he hasn't been a part of that world since. Now 32 years old, Gonzalez helps Navarro coach the soccer teams that include his 8-year-old son, Jonathan Gonzalez.

"It's better that they're here involved in a sport than being out there in the street or using drugs," Gonzalez said in Spanish.

Navarro wants to expand to four outdoor teams so he can have one for players up to 14 years old. He said that's a crucial age, when bad influences become stronger and kids need as much positive guidance as possible.

He said he sometimes struggles to secure team sponsors and get the $45 to purchase uniforms from the players' families. Navarro said some of the families just can't afford to pay.

"A lot of times, I pay for the uniforms out of my own pocket," said Navarro, who works delivering garbage cans for Bertolotti Disposal. "I just really like doing this."

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or 578-2394.

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