Occupational Therapy Student Uses Soccer to Connect with Kids
By: Daniel Vieth ('15, '17)
According to WMRA, Harrisonburg and Rockingham County have long been identified as important resettlement communities for immigrants. In fact, the Harrisonburg Refugee Office resettles somewhere between 175 to 200 refugees every year. Resettling can be a significant challenge, particularly for the children of refugees who are thrust into a new culture and expected to quickly transition. For the past year, occupational therapy (OT) graduate student Michelle Bloomfield (‘13,‘16) has been making a difference for these children by hosting weekly soccer club meetings.
Bloomfield graduated from JMU as a kinesiology major in 2013, and is currently a second year graduate student in the Occupational Therapy program. Her soccer club officially began last summer while Bloomfield was visiting an Iraqi refugee family living near Norwood Street. “Every time I went over, there were kids outside playing in the field, the playground, or just in the road, and it became clear very quickly that they were not engaging in productive play,” said Bloomfield. “They had no structure and no supervision.” As Bloomfield explained, this led to the children playing rough or getting in trouble. “In addition, there is a lot of racism and cultural biases that were evident in this neighborhood. One side of the street is largely Hispanic, and other is largely Arabic,” Bloomfield continued. “The kids just did not get along, and they were beginning to become very hateful toward each other based solely on their cultural backgrounds.”
Recognizing that something needed to be done, Bloomfield asked if the kids would be interested in meeting to play soccer with the equipment she had. “It just kind of hit me. They have the perfect field right behind their houses, they love soccer, and I love soccer. Soccer is the universal language,” said Bloomfield. “I asked some of my classmates if they would be willing to volunteer, they agreed, and we had our first soccer club practice.” Since that time, Bloomfield has moved from bringing some of her own soccer balls and cones for goals, to a recent collaboration with Empowerment3, a center for physical activity and wellness for underserved youth with disabilities led by kinesiology associate professor Dr. Tom Moran. Empowerment3 has provided needed soccer balls and other equipment. “I hugely appreciate the contributions from my wonderful group of volunteers, Dr. Carlos Aleman who has brought water for the kids, and the support from Dr. Tom Moran and Empowerment3,” said Bloomfield.
The children now meet weekly. “There are about 20 to 25 kids who come each week, ranging from about four to 14 years old, and with about eight different natural languages spoken among them,” said Bloomfield. “The neighborhood has a large population of refugee families from Iraq, Pakistan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.” After the children warm up and stretch, Bloomfield separates the participants into two teams where they do one or two practice drills and scrimmage each other. There the children work not only on soccer skills, but also learning life lessons like teamwork, taking turns, using manners, working hard, expressing frustrations positively, and being kind to each other.
“It’s important to understand that the kids of refugee families have almost all experienced trauma and instability in a way that we cannot possibly comprehend, and that has led to a lot of maladaptive behaviors,” explained Bloomfield. “After they arrived in a country that they know little about and usually don’t know the language at all, the kids are enrolled in school and have very little time to transition.” Bloomfield’s soccer club provides an opportunity for the children to have fun in a positive way, find mentors, and use play to correct maladaptive behaviors. “Bloomfield uses soccer as a medium, not just to teach skills, but to work on problem solving, creating relationships, and working on team and cooperation,” added Moran. “This soccer club provides them with opportunities that they may not otherwise have.”
In addition to renting equipment, Bloomfield reached out to Moran and Empowerment3 as a way to expand the soccer club and maintain it after she graduates. “Dr. Moran has been more than willing to help me in whatever ways possible and explore ideas with me, and I am very appreciative of this,” said Bloomfield. “We don’t quite know what this collaboration will look like but it will hopefully begin this summer!” Rather than using the resources of Empowerment3 to continue the soccer club as a separate entity, Moran hopes he can combine the programs as a way to provide a mentor program between the different youth populations.
“Ultimately, my goal is for soccer club to expand to multiple different neighborhoods,” said Bloomfield. “This summer, we also hope to add an adventure program to give the children the opportunities to participate in activities they may not otherwise be exposed to.” After graduation, she hopes to be able to come back to Harrisonburg and do community programming as her career. “What these programs are really about is empowerment, and providing them a place to belong for these kids,” Moran continued. “That’s the power of bringing these populations together, because they both want purpose. Instead of always being helped, if we bring them together, they can help each other.”
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