SIOUX FALLS, S.D. –
In Sioux Falls, S.D., the youth have one thing in common: they love soccer. When Army 1st. Sgt. Daniel Rivera, Sioux Falls MEPS senior enlisted advisor, was asked to volunteer at a grassroots soccer league for his community's youth, the answer was easy.
This past summer, a community organizer approached Rivera about activities they could host for youth in Sioux Falls. The organizer was specifically looking for Spanish-speaking volunteers for kids in high-need and low-income areas. For Rivera, a Dallas native, the volunteer opportunity was a perfect fit.
"I am one of very few Hispanics around here," said Rivera. "The organizer approached me to see if I speak Spanish. He said this year they are going to start a local soccer league for kids. Since I speak Spanish, and being active duty military, they could use help."
The league kicked off Sept. 17 and ran from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. every Saturday for seven weeks. U.S. Army 1st. Sgt. Daniel Rivera, Sioux Falls MEPS senior enlisted advisor, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Peggy Dodds, Sioux Falls MEPS medical NCOIC, and U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Caleb Smith, Sioux Falls MEPS corpsman, also committed to volunteering. Every week, volunteers assisted in coaching and interacting with 70-80 participants aged 5-11 years old.
1st Premier Bank of Sioux Falls agreed to cover the cost of shin guards, soccer balls, water bottles and jerseys for the participants. However, shortly after the first league clinic day, needs beyond soccer gear became apparent.
"It became clear what the need was right from the beginning...they needed to be fed," Rivera said. "On average we had about 60 faithful kids that showed up each week. When they arrived we gave them breakfast bars and water… and we did that out of our personal pockets. We took turns who picked up the tab for the food for Saturday."
After the balls were put away and the kids were exhausted at the end of every league clinic day, Rivera and the other volunteers gathered for something more than just sports. For Rivera, this was the most moving part of the day's events.
"We would bring everyone in the middle of the field and someone would give words of encouragement and guidance how to live life," he said.
After the motivational talk, the volunteers provide lunch to the kids to ensure no one is left hungry.
"We would feed them lunch because we knew they had to be hungry they may not have anything to eat at home," he said of the clinic as it grew in popularity. "All of a sudden, we had an enormous line around 10:30 as parents and more people would show up to be able to eat."
As the weather turned cooler and the number of soccer league Saturdays dwindled, volunteers knew turnout would be the biggest on the final weekend. Rivera, his wife Heather, Dodds and Smith anticipated a crowd of 100-150 people on Oct. 30. Other organizers expected the number to balloon to over 200. Rivera knew feeding a couple hundred people would be a gargantuan task. He turned to Dodds and Smith and said they should contribute to the event only if they felt inclined. In turn, he was humbled by the contributions of his fellow MEPS personnel.
"I think they (Dodds and Smith) saw the need within the community and they knew that the kids showed up every weekend for a reason," he said. "So we pooled our money together. I gave the money to my wife...it ended up being $300 to buy groceries for Saturday morning."
He struck gold earlier in the week when he asked MEPS personnel for crockpots or roasters that could be loaned out.
"An HRA, Mrs. Debbie Holuska, came up to me and said 'don't ask for more, I have more than enough," he said. "She had like six or seven roasters and I took every last one of them."
On the final day of the soccer league, Heather Rivera was up at 3 a.m., prepping and cooking food for the event. By late morning, her cooking was done. The roasters were transported in a caravan to the soccer fields. Dodds and Smith had gone and bought extra bananas, cookies, Halloween candy and water bottles. The volunteers worked the serving line to feed hungry participants and, in total, fed 214 mouths a home-cooked meal of chicken and dumplings.
Rivera said what he saw that day was more remarkable than just teaching soccer skills and providing activities for kids.
"There were people who came out that had been neighbors for 10, 15, 20 years and they didn't even know each other," he said. "All of a sudden, they were having conversations about how to make their community better and safer for their kids. This whole event was not a handout but to teach and show that ordinary people can do extraordinary things from within."
Rivera plans to PCS next summer and says he will continue volunteering in his community at his next duty station. In the meantime, he's incredibly proud and thankful for Dodds, Smith, his wife Heather and the MEPS personnel that contributed to the event's success. What started off just being about soccer ended up being about much more.
"I hope that as we approach the holiday season, we are reminded that we have much to be thankful for."