Karina Carrasco Patino, a first-grader at Swegle Elementary, lines up a goal during soccer camp on Wednesday, March 17 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Aubrey Garcia’s face erupted in a grin as she ran toward her coach. 

The first grader at Swegle Elementary School jumped and high-fived Sarai Castillo, 18, celebrating after kicking a soccer ball into a pop-up goal. 

The enthusiasm is one of the benefits the 7-year-old is getting from a weekly after- school soccer club for Swegle students, put on by students from neighboring Blanchet High School. 

After three weeks, Garcia’s mother, Felicia Hartless, said her daughter is benefitting from “working as a team, having fun, helping the other kids if they need help.” 

“She gets all her energy out too,” Hartless added. 

Aubrey Garcia, a first-grader at Swegle Elementary School, reacts after scoring a goal during soccer camp with coach Sarai Castillo, 18, from Blanchet High School on March 17, 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The soccer club is the brainchild of Castillo and two other Blanchet seniors, Olivia Banning and Vanessa Cervantes, both 18. 

All three have played or served as team managers for the girls soccer team at Blanchet.  

When they considered what to do for the school’s required senior community service project, they thought about fusing sports with something accessible and fun for their neighbors down the street. 

“We all know that since the pandemic not a lot of kids had the chance to actually go outside and interact … so we thought maybe this would be a good thing to do,” Castillo said. 

They approached Swegle’s principal, Sarah Kimmell, and got a green light. The school has existing sports for older kids, so registration was open to students in first through third grade, completely free. 

“We wanted to not have to turn anyone away,” Banning said. But that proved impossible when 90 kids - nearly one-third of eligible Swegle students - wanted to sign up. 

The girls prioritized kids identified by Swegle’s behavior specialist who might especially benefit from the club, and took 60 of the interested students, getting help from the Blanchet boys’ soccer team. 

Practices began Feb. 28, with one-hour sessions on Monday and Wednesday after school on the Swegle field. The hour-long practices include fundamental skills like dribbling and shooting into goals, with plenty of chaos as six and seven-year-olds run around the field, get muddy and cheer each other on. 

Swegle Elementary School students run during a soccer camp put on by neighboring Blanchet High School students on March 17, 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The students used soccer balls, cones and jerseys from Blanchet, and got help from the Salem Leadership Foundation, which provided pop-up goals for practices. 

The soccer camp is completely free for students, something all three girls said was important to them. 

Castillo and Cervantes both attended the elementary school on Northeast Market Street.  

It’s in a lower-income neighborhood, and about half the students speak a language other than English at home. The trio said they’ve heard from parents that finding youth sports programs they can afford has been a challenge. 

“There’s not a lot out there right now,” said Banning. 

They divide students into groups by age and language for practice, with Castillo and Cervantes coaching drills in both English and Spanish so all students can understand. 

Parents of participating students often linger at practices. Cervantes said several have told her, “I’ve been trying to get them off their phones and get them outside.” 

On Saturday, March 12, the Swegle students played their first game on Blanchet’s newly completed turf field. 

Despite a rainy day, which forced the game to end early, the stands were completely full of Swegle parents, grandparents, extended family and other supporters cheering them on. 

“It was just nice to see how much support these kids have,” Banning said. 

Though the girls are graduating this year, they’ve recruited several junior boys’ soccer players from Blanchet to help out with the club, in hopes they’d keep the program continuing. 

The Swegle players have their next game Saturday from 1:30-2:30 p.m. at Blanchet, 4373 Market St N.E. 

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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