In some ways, it was all about the jersey.
Glorie Ndagano started playing soccer at age 5 with his older brothers in the neighborhoods of his native Kigali, Rwanda. As the youngest in the bunch, he was usually relegated to the position of goalkeeper – an undesirable spot for most playground games.
When his family left Rwanda in 2010, arriving in Buffalo with refugee status, Ndagano entered fifth grade at Buffalo Elementary School of Technology – PS No. 6 – with a large population of immigrant students, all of whom enjoyed soccer. Ndagano played at school, no longer relegated to goal, but still with only gym-class pinnies to differentiate the teams.
Two years later, Ndagano learned a soccer program was coming to his school. It would be an organized team that was free of charge. And it included one of the biggest draws to him – a jersey.
“I actually fell in love with the game since I started playing,” Ndagano said. “I would play with my friends every day after school or on the weekends. Coming to America, I saw how organized it was. And I wanted to play for a soccer team like that – to be on an organized team. I wanted to at least have a jersey with my chosen number on it.”
There was something special about pulling on a jersey. One that matched your teammates. One that came with colors and names and sponsors. One that showed you belonged.
Ndagano found that sense of belonging, and that first coveted jersey, through the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s program Soccer for Success. Sponsored locally by the Independent Health Foundation, the program is free for all kids in grades K-8, offering soccer drills, nutrition information, and mentoring three days a week.
More than 6,000 Western New York youth and more than 300 coaches-mentors have participated in Soccer for Success since it was first launched in Buffalo in May 2012.
“More than just learning and playing soccer, this program gives young people access to information and the ability to develop habits that not only help with physical health but mental health as well,” said Carrie Meyer, executive director of the Independent Health Foundation. “We know how challenging it can be to stay healthy and active, and Soccer for Success is one way the Independent Health Foundation supports families in our community.”
The program itself was a door opener for Ndagano. Able to start honing his soccer skills, and receive encouragement and support to do well academically, Ndagano found opportunities to don other team jerseys – from local soccer clubs to Hutch-Tech High School and then at Division I Canisius College where he graduated in May 2022 with a degree in communications.
And while the game of soccer is the star of the program, the road to success comes not just through kicking a ball and getting exercise. Soccer for Success allowed Ndagano to flourish in a community and continues to provide those opportunities for kids in Western New York.
“As a refugee coming to America, I wanted to explore and with Soccer for Success, it helped me explore,” Ndagano said. “It helped me with the language as well. I did speak English a little bit, but being on the field with other kids really helped me, because you have to communicate with your teammates. Soccer for Success showed me that people here are really welcoming and that’s something I love being a part of. I love being part of a diverse community that welcomes you.”
For more information on the program, visit buffalosoccerforsuccess.com.