George Alvarado-Salinas came late to “the beautiful game”. He didn’t fall in love with soccer until the 8th grade when his parents took him to Mexico. George returned from the trip a changed person, admitting he had become “soccer crazed” insisting on wearing indoor soccer shoes and jerseys everywhere he went. While he developed his skills into being a good field player, his passion for the game came alive when juggling and doing tricks with a soccer ball. Known for being a bit reserved in a crowd, George found satisfaction in this solitary pursuit of excellence.
While George was perfecting his juggling routines and navigating the journey out of middle school and into high school as a Rainier Scholar, Chris Kaimmer, a Yale University graduate from Ballard High School was following his love of the game to soccer pitches around the world. As a volunteer with Grassroot Soccer, a sports-based non-profit supporting HIV/AIDS initiatives in Africa, Chris saw how soccer connects people and helps save lives. In 2013, inspired by the time he spent with Sheldon Hughes, the director of Mtuba Football Academy in South Africa, and other inspiring sports programs like it, he founded a soccer-focused travel company, Woza Soccer, as a way to share the experience with teens in America.
The word “Woza” translates to “Come” in Zulu. Players use it to plead for the ball from teammates (Woza! WOZA!) or to express excitement or disappointment on the field. It is an ever-present yet unmistakable term that epitomizes the passion Chris wants to instill in players and in this transformative cross-cultural program.
For his part, George was introduced to Woza through the program’s efforts to identify scholarship candidates and a partnership created through Chris’ meeting with Sarah Smith, Executive Director of Rainier Scholars. With a lifelong passion for sports and also a lover of the beautiful game, Ms. Smith saw Woza as yet another opportunity to expand the view of scholars, enriching a students’ perspective of the world and how one can make a difference.
Upon learning of the chance to travel and play soccer, George and his parents jumped at this unique opportunity. The trip did not, however, begin auspiciously.
With a mind-numbing 16-hour flight and thirteen other kids from around the country he didn’t know, George admitted, “It was pretty weird. All I wanted to do was sit by myself and read.” But eventually, soccer began to work its magic. As Chris observed, “It was this amazing transformation from a kid alone in a corner of the airport hiding behind sunglasses and reading philosophy who, after a few days and a few touches on a soccer ball, became a beloved part of the group.” George agrees saying, “Soccer made the difference. You’re together with teammates – sharing the experience.”
Making a difference through soccer. That is Woza. When asked what he remembers most about the trip, George recalls, “Soccer. Playing soccer ALL the time.” Whether it was with the Zulu boys on a home-made soccer field, in a market square in Cape Town while waiting for the ferry to Robben Island, outdoors at Sheldon’s house around a stewing pot of Potjiekos – a local dinner favorite – or leading a clinic for HIV-positive local youth, a soccer ball was always present. It was a new and powerful experience. Host families of modest means welcomed them into their homes, sharing a contagious sense of happiness. Their ability to be grateful for what they had while at the same time having big dreams for the future was eye opening to George.
So it was, some months later, back in Seattle, when Chris asked him if he wanted to go on another trip, George’s face lit up immediately. It was as if his heart was saying, “woza, woza — Woza!” Yes. Yes, I’m open – pass me the ball!