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SOCCER ACROSS BORDERS

Benson Soccer uses the power of the world’s game to change lives — including their own

In 1982, Bruce Benson — then Washington Youth Soccer’s Director of Coaching — ran into future governor Booth Gardner on a Lakewood soccer field.

Thirty years later, the impact of that chance encounter has spread to over 1,000 youth soccer players, nearly a dozen countries and dramatically altered the lives of Benson, his family, and a rising star in the Sounders Youth Academy.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

THE JOURNEY

Benson’s story begins all the way back in 1968, when, as an undergrad at Brigham Young University pursuing a physical education degree, he found a soccer ball at his feet for the first time.

“I had never so much as kicked one before, but I learned the game and decided to try out for the club team,” Benson says. “I was cut twice before finally making it.”

Benson was hooked. He earned his Masters degree in P.E. at BYU, then moved to Washington and began coaching local youth teams, working his way up the coaching license ladder. Shortly after acquiring his “A” license, Benson was named Washington Youth Soccer’s Director of Coaching in 1980, and became a Region IV clinician. That latter job took Benson all over the West, where he conducted a number of clinics and camps, and fostered a love for travel.

In 1982, Benson was in Lakewood to conduct a camp and ran into Gardner, whose daughter played for a local youth team. She had just returned from the Gothia Cup in Sweden, and Gardner mentioned to Benson what a great experience it had been for the team.

The following year, Benson had his team sell hot dogs, conduct car washes … anything to raise the money for their own trip abroad. The team played exhibition games against a German squad before competing in Sweden’s Gothia Cup, a multi-national tournament featuring as many as 500 teams from around the world.

Two years later, Benson’s oldest son asked when he was going to get to go, so Benson took a second team. A couple of years after that, Benson’s daughter asked the same question, and so a third team made the trip.

“I have five children, so you can see where this is going,” Benson says.

The trips became so popular with players in Benson’s local community, and among those who attended his camps, that in 1990 Benson made it an annual event, teaming with his wife, Ginny, to form Benson Soccer and take a team to Europe every year since (except 2010). While most players came from Benson’s camps and local community, some joined the team from as far away as Maryland and Ohio for the chance to partake in the unique experience.

“We thought we had done it enough with our own kids, we should keep doing it and give more kids the same opportunities,” he says.

While Benson would handle the coaching and recruitment of players, typically through camps or recommendations from coaches, it was left to Ginny to do the legwork — book flights, get passports, make lodging and dining arrangements, coordinate equipment, etc.

“I just did the fun stuff,” he says with a chuckle. “Ginny did most of the work.”

Benson estimates that in the nearly three decades since that first trip, he and Ginny — with the help of their five children, Jeff, Holly, Brad, Suzy and Hans, as well as friends Rusty Williams, Scott Davis and John besagno — have taken over 1,000 youth soccer players to tournaments in Germany, Sweden, Thailand, Russia, Brazil, Argentina and elsewhere.

THE FRIENDSHIPS

While the soccer was top-notch, Benson says it was the off-field personal interactions with players and coaches from other countries that left a lasting memory on all involved.

“Most of the time we went to Sweden, to the Gothia Cup,” he says. “It was easy because they are so organized and everyone speaks English. The unique thing there is that the teams are all put up in a school — you bring sleeping bags and air mattresses and sleep in a classroom, surrounded by teams from around the world in other classrooms. There might be kids from 20 different countries living in your school, kids you interact with on a daily basis. It’s a neat experience.”

Benson always made sure that the cultural exchange was a central part of his teams’ visit. Benson’s teams traditionally brought care packages for the other teams consisting of balls, cleats, t-shirts or other equipment, and encouraged his players to go door-to-door in the school, meeting players from other countries and learning about their experiences.

“We’d always arrange for parties with the other teams,” he says. “There’s a team from Uganda that comes every year that we always get together with. They don’t have a lot of nice equipment, so we bring them balls and shoes and things, and they do traditional songs and dances.

“We receive e-mails and letters all the time from kids who say that the experience changed their lives,” he continues. “And while we were always very successful on the soccer side, it’s the people part that is what’s truly important. They always remember the friends that they made.”

Indeed, many of those who traveled with Benson Soccer have been forever altered by their experience. One of Benson’s players, after graduating, decided to live in Spain. Two others who met on a trip to Thailand are now married. One of Benson’s own sons now works as a global immigration attorney.

If the story ended there, it would be remarkable enough — one man, who didn’t touch a soccer ball until college, becoming a State DOC and, with his wife, profoundly affecting the lives of over 1,000 young players. But it doesn’t end there.

THE FAMILY

A few years ago, Benson’s daughter, Suzy Gillies decided to follow in her parents’ footsteps and organized a team to take to Uganda, where the Benson family had built a relationship with many of the youth soccer directors through their joint experiences in Sweden. While there, she was moved by the experience of volunteering in an orphanage, and made a promise to a man on the street that she would return one day to help the people of Uganda, whose needs were many.

To honor that commitment, Suzy founded a charity called African Promise, buying beads from the women in Uganda and selling them in the United States, then using the profits to support the education of 16 different Ugandan orphans.

On one of her trips back to Uganda to purchase more beads, she met Joseph, a young boy living in an orphanage who made a lasting impression on her. In 2010, Suzy and her husband adopted Joseph, then 15, and brought him to live with them here in Washington.

Benson says the family knew little about Joseph’s background, only that he had no family and no home, yet a remarkable spirit. They would soon discover one thing he had in abundance — soccer skills.

Within just a few months of his arrival in the United States in August of 2010, Joseph was not only playing soccer, he was rising through the ranks of Washington Youth Soccer’s Elite Player Development program, and starring for the Seattle Sounders FC Academy. In February of 2011 — less than six months removed from playing on dirt fields with no shoes — it was Joseph who scored the winning goal for Washington’s 1995 Boys team in the Region IV ODP Championship final.

The Bensons also learned that Joseph did have a family — brothers and sisters from whom he had been separated as a child, each sent to orphanages across Uganda. One of Joseph’s older brothers, in fact, plays for Uganda’s National Team — and in perhaps one of the story’s more remarkable twists, recalls having met Benson years ago in Sweden, at a previous Gothia Cup, long before Joseph ever came into the family’s life.

For Benson, it’s ALL been a stirring experience.

“I feel so lucky to have had the chance to truly be a citizen of the world,” he says. “Over the years we developed the motto, ‘The world is our pitch.’ We’ve met so many amazing people from all over the world, and made so many friends. Wherever we want to go — Thailand, Germany, Uganda — we have friends we can call who will welcome us. That’s truly what it’s all about.”

THE FUTURE

Both Bruce and Ginny are getting older now, and their kids are all grown up. For just the second time since 1990, Benson Soccer is not planning to take a team abroad in 2012. Benson says that a colleague may pick up the mantle and keep the tradition going, but otherwise, it’s likely they’ve taken their last trip — that is, until the grandkids are old enough to travel.

“We have 20 grandkids, so that’s the one thing that might keep us going, to do it again for them,” he says. “It doesn’t take much to fire it back up again.”

Benson received a Christmas present this year from a family in Germany that he met on one of those first trips in 1985, with an invitation to return anytime. Recently, a woman approached him with her children in a grocery store parking lot in Federal Way — “Coach Benson!” she cried. She hadn’t seen her old coach since she was a teenager, but immediately recalled the experiences he had given her and how it had shaped her life.

His daughter will return to Uganda soon to continue her charitable work, and, of course, Joseph’s growing reputation in the Sounders Academy and Washington Youth Soccer EPD team is a constant reminder of the impact Benson has had on the world, and the power of soccer to connect different cultures.

“It’s really part of the fabric of our family,” he says.

To learn more about how you can help support the people of Uganda, visit http://africanpromise.giving.officelive.com/AfricanPromiseBeads.aspx.

Washington Youth Soccer

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