Vancouver PD’s annual soccer tournament for kids in Downtown Eastside keeps them off the streets

Published: May 13, 2014

In this 2009 file photo some of East Vancouver’s inner city youth take part in the VPD’s PAL Soccer Tournament at Strathcona Park. Submitted photo.

LARISSA CAHUTE
VANCOUVER DESI

Students at Lord Strathcona Elementary School in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside are busy gearing up for a much-anticipated soccer tournament on Thursday.

“They’re playing at recess, they’re playing at lunch, they’re playing after school,” Steve Valente, who works as a support worker at the school, said about his students’ intense training regimen.

While organized sports are a luxury many of the inner-city school kids can’t afford, they’ve had the annual sporting event to look forward for the past six years thanks to the Vancouver Police Department’s Police Athletic League (PAL) Soccer Tournament.

Strathcona Elementary has taken part in the VPD program since its inception, back when Valente was bringing a mere 12 students to play on a gravel field at Strathcona Park.

But this year — marking the program’s sixth annual tournament Thursday — Valente will instead be bringing 50 students to B.C. Place to play alongside nearly 1,000 students from various East Vancouver schools.

“More and more kids want to join and they even talk about it in September,” said Valente. “It motivates them to play all year round (to) get ready for this tournament.

“If it wasn’t for the VPD a lot of them wouldn’t be doing this … if they didn’t have sports I think they’d be getting into way more trouble, they’d be in front of the TV, on their computers.

“But instead of hanging out with the wrong people, they’re hanging out with their friends and adults and just positive role models.”

This was exactly the intent of the program when it started out as a “seed of an idea” with Const. Kal Dosanjh.

Having patrolled the Downtown Eastside for nearly a decade, Dosanjh noticed a “disturbing trend.”

“Young kids were ending up in the Downtown Eastside — between the ages of 12 and 17 — not only to use drugs, but also to sell them,” he said.

In this 2009 file photo some of East Vancouver’s inner city youth take part in the VPD’s PAL Soccer Tournament at Strathcona Park. Submitted photo.

Dosanjh immediately considered the PAL program — a VPD youth crime prevention initiative looking to give a safe and supervised place for kids to play, avoid crime and develop a rapport with police, either through athletic, recreational or educational programs.

Having grown up playing soccer, Dosanjh believed it was the “perfect match.”

“A large majority of the families can barely afford the basic amenities let alone let their kids play organized sports,” said Dosanjh, adding that with soccer, “there is no real equipment that’s needed other than a soccer ball.”

“(Soccer) is played all over the world,” he added. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re from Saudi Arabia, whether you’re from Brazil, whether you’re from India or Canada — it’s a universal language that all these kids speak.

“It removes class, ethnicity, creed and caste and what you’re left with … is just a game — a game that anybody can play.”

Today the program has not only grown in size, from 150 kids to 1,000, but it’s also grown to include corporate sponsors, like Subway, Costco and the Vancouver Whitecaps, which helped bring this year’s tournament to B.C. Place for the first time.

“It started at a park — just a turf park and now it’s ending up at B.C. Place,” said Valente. “It’s huge for them.”

Dosanjh hopes the program only continues to grow.

“The more kids we impact … the bigger contribution we’re making as a police department to these kids’ lives,” he said. “You make a lasting impression on these kids and hopefully it’s something that will stay with them.”

Which is something Valente can attest to with his students.

“It’s so positive for them,” he said. “I have many kids that have a hard time showing up to school, but when the day comes for the tournament they’re there bright and early, ready to go.”

“Just showing these kids that anything can happen — it’s awesome.”

The PAL Soccer Tournament kicks off with an awards ceremony at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at B.C. Place, followed by the tournament from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

lcahute@theprovince.com

twitter.com/larissacahute

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