Ashlee Perez, center-midfielder for the Sol U-9 Soccer Club, couldn't believe her luck.
It was November 2014, the final seconds of the last game of the Coast Soccer League season were ticking away, and the goalie from the Santa Barbara SC White team had just blocked a shot that bounced straight to her. Instinctively, Ashlee set, kicked and boom: Goal! She was swarmed by teammates. They jumped up and down. They high-fived. And as the final whistle blew, the Sol U-9 Soccer Club continued celebrating like they'd just taken home Olympic gold.
The Santa Barbara SC White players stared at them like they were crazy. The Sol girls hadn't won the league title. They hadn't even won the game. In fact, they had just been crushed 8-1, hadn't chalked up a single 'W' in twelve games, and Ashlee's tally was just their third goal of the entire season. But they didn't care what the other teams thought or worry about how badly they'd lost. Just being out on the field was reason to rejoice. And if it weren't for the passion and determination of one woman, the Sol SC team wouldn't have been out there at all.
D'Alary Dalton didn't move to Santa Barbara to change young girls' lives.
After finishing her PhD in Education Leadership in 2012, she arrived from the Bay area to take a job as a coach and Administrative Director at the Santa Barbara Soccer Club, a high calibre local program and a member of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. It was a good fit. Dalton had been coaching the sport for 26 years, and the chance to live and work in Santa Barbara, with all its beauty and charm, not to mention having the Pacific Ocean in her backyard, made the opportunity seem as idyllic as the lyrics of a Beach Boys song.
But Dalton gradually discovered that Santa Barbara wasn't all a postcard paradise, especially when it came to soccer.
For one, the Santa Barbara SC girls programs received 2nd class status. “There was no plan, no path for future development on the girls' side,” says the 48 year-old. Plus, many young girls couldn't afford to play at all, let alone at a high-end club like SBSC. In many ways, life in Santa Barbara County is a tale of two cities, with one in five residents living below the poverty line. In some lower income neighborhoods, 32 percent of families receive food stamps and the child poverty rate stands at nearly 40 percent.
Dalton was determined to make a difference, so she decided to launch a soccer program at Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara, a chapter of the renowned national program that helps support girls from under-resourced communities. She soon encountered broken homes, malnutrition, and families of six or more living in one-room, converted garages. The inequality was even more glaring when it came to sports. Girls from low-income families had to play on ill-kempt, often make-shift fields. Instead of pristine uniforms and trendy, bright, multi-colored cleats, they took the field in tattered ballet shoes and worn-out jeans. "Players on a lot of the other teams looked like they drank straight vitamins every day," says Dalton.
The truth was inescapable: many families were fighting to stay afloat. Families like Ashlee Perez's. "I'm not ashamed to talk about our struggles," says Ashlee's mother, Monica. After she and her husband, Simon, married, he got a job as a city water technician while Monica stayed home to raise their growing family. They pinched pennies and managed to live modestly, but after their fourth child was born, the bills--rent, insurance, school supplies, clothes--started to pile up. So Monica took a part time job as an administrative assistant at a property management company. But then, a surprise: baby number five. For a time, the Perez clan wasn't sure how they were going to make it. "But we did, and we're doing a little better now," says Monica with a smile. "But it's tough. Santa Barbara is really expensive. We can't afford to own our own home, so we try to get any help we can."
By mid-2013, Dalton had come to a decision: she would create a new type of soccer team, one that would give all the girls, especially those from low-income families, a chance to play on an even field and develop their skills throughout their teenage years. Over the next several months, Dalton toiled over all of the paperwork, navigated the myriad legal requirements and established her non-profit status.
But one major obstacle remained: funding. The costs of starting the Sol Soccer Club were not insubstantial. There was equipment, uniforms, fees, insurance, field rental, and transportation. The leanest budget she could muster came to $1,200 per player. Without some luck--and dollars--Dalton's dream would remain just that.
That luck arrived in the form of a phone call.
An acquaintance that works for UP2US, a sports-based youth development program, told Dalton that one of their partners, Dick's Sporting Goods, was offering matching grants to underfunded sports programs across the country. Although she knew nothing about fundraising, Dalton was undaunted. Within weeks, she got the good news: Sol SC would receive matching funds. "I was thrilled," Dalton says. "But there was no time to celebrate. We only had a month to raise $7,500." She made calls, sent emails and passed out fliers. She even put up a fundraising booth at her weekly soccer clinic. She raised $5 here and $10 there. When the crowd-funding deadline expired, Dalton had exceeded her goal--by 20 bucks. "The award was incredible," she recalls. "And not just the money. It gave us credibility, and helped bring in players and families. Plus, we had enough for both the fall and spring seasons."
With the finances in place, Dalton needed to find fresh recruits. She placed ads in a local Spanish newspaper and on parenting websites. She posted fliers at the Santa Barbara and Galinas Girls Inc. locations and throughout the low-income West Side and Malpis neighborhoods. She spread the news to anyone who would listen. When the dust settled, Dalton had herself a squad of nine girls, including Ashlee and her cousins Emilly and Tiffany Morales. As for the name? "I'm a lover of all things Hispanic," explains Dalton. "And since the sun is such a big part of southern California, I figured 'Sol' was a perfect fit."
Each Sol SC player soon received a Dick's Sporting Goods store voucher for cleats and shin guards. They got snazzy new orange and blue Adidas uniforms and a backpack. Perhaps most importantly, Dalton made sure each of her new players received a membership to Girls Inc. While that program's after school supervision and complimentary meal offerings were invaluable, it
was the transportation that proved crucial. All but two of her players would not have been able to get to practice without the Girls Inc. buses that picked them after school. As for the costs not covered by the needs-based charity, Dalton took care of those herself.
In the fall of 2014, the Sol U-9 squad officially debuted, but not without some growing pains. The Sol girls were smaller and less naturally athletic than most of their opponents. None of them had played together before, and more than half had never played soccer at all. Sometimes they'd pick up the ball when they weren't supposed to or wouldn't know what to do with it when it came their way. Watching them on the field, it was hard not to think of the Bad News Bears.
"It was a competitive challenge," Dalton admits with a smile.
Eight months have passed since Ashlee's goal and the Sol U-9 players are just arriving at the La Colina High School field. The grass is dappled brown courtesy of the ongoing drought. The skies are gray and gloomy with the threat of a welcome shower. Despite a winless spring season, the girls bound merrily onto the turf for their final practice until fall.
"Okay Sol team," Dalton calls out as the nine girls, all sporting orange t-shirts, blue shorts and ponytails, gather dutifully around the coach. "I'm really glad you guys came out today. We're going to play a little warm up game of foxes and rabbits."
As the girls dive into the exercise, Dalton closely surveys the action. Broad and boisterous, she bears the scars of ten ACL surgeries from her playing days at Lewis and Clark University and the New Mexico Women's Traveling Select team. But despite those battle scars, Dalton is far more cheerleader than drill sergeant and her commands come across as encouragement, usually accompanied by an inviting smile. "She has great energy and connects so well with the kids," says Bonnie Bache, mother of midfielder, Ava. "She's been an amazing role model for all of the girls."
Sol lost their first game 17-0 to the Eagles. In their first six games, they conceded 80 goals. One opposing squad was nasty, playing a particularly rough-and-tumble style while their parents laughed and whispered on the sidelines. Sol finished the fall season winless and dead last in the Coast Soccer league.
But they never despaired. "No matter how many goals they gave up, they still played their hardest," says Joey Morales, Emilly and Tiffany's father. "They never got down on themselves." They also looked to the bright spots: the fun they had at practice; the bus ride banter; the handshake line after the 17-0 slaughter, when, instead of ridicule, the Eagles offered praise and encouragement. The future, if not the scoreboard, looked bright. "It will get better," says Ashlee's mother Monica. "They always say the best outcomes come from the worst starts."
Just as Dalton is not merely a coach to the Sol girls, soccer is more than just a game.
Playing in the Coast League validates them, empowers them, makes them feel like they are no different than any other Santa Barbara girls. "Under resourced kids always struggle to get access to facilities, to compete, and to prove themselves," explains Dalton. "When they leave Sol soccer, I want them all to feel like part of something larger."
The benefits go far beyond scoring goals. "People don't realize that just playing on a team like this helps the kids in so many ways," says Monica Perez, "with their health, their academics and their self-esteem." And despite the girls' ages, Dalton's devotion doesn't go unnoticed. "I don't really like losing," says soon-to-be 9 year-old Ava. "But this is as much fun as any other team I've ever been on."
Practice winds down. As children and parents hustle off to the parking lot, Dalton reminds them of the Women's World Cup viewing party she's hosting a few days hence. "I just got back from the games in Vancouver," says the coach. "We're going to have soccer trivia for prizes!"
A little after six o'clock, only Emilly and Tiffany Morales remain on the field. Again and again, they run, kick and occasionally fall on the ground, laughing with each step, harder than the last. It's as if they don't want the day to end. Their father, Joey, stands nearby.
"They talk about this season all the time," he says, "being on the team, meeting new kids. But even more, they loved being a part of something. Something they'll never forget."