Since 2018 the Soccer Stars program, offered through the Rohnert Park Community Services Department, has been providing soccer instruction for children from five to ten years old. These classes not only teach young children about the exciting game of soccer, they serve to get kids outdoors, increase their health and well-being physically, mentally, and emotionally, as well as give parents an opportunity to have their children involved in a positive activity for a very low cost. This year Soccer Stars is able to make their program even better in part due to a $1,550 grant from the Rohnert Park Foundation small grants program.
Coach Riccardo Oliva started the program after coaching a lot of his five sons’ local soccer teams through the Rohnert Park Soccer Club and seeing coaches come and go, and programs only offered during certain parts of the year. He wanted to establish a program that would be consistent and offered throughout the whole year.
“We were looking for coaches to help our kids continue with the sport,” says Riccardo Oliva, founder of the Soccer Stars program. “I decided in 2018 to talk with people from the Rohnert Park community center to make a new soccer program for kids for the whole year, not just for the summer-time. They supported the idea and thought it was a wonderful opportunity to keep the kids in our community continuing in a sport. The idea for this [Soccer Stars] program was to give kids a community and physical activity. I got a lot of support from the city, from the parents and from the players.”
Oliva was the perfect person to start the program, having played soccer professionally in his youth and having almost 14 years of experience coaching, primarily for youth soccer teams. He himself began playing soccer as a young child, earning a scholarship to play on a professional university team in El Salvador. He received the 2016 Boys Recreational Cal North District V & State Coach of the Year award and in 2017 earned the Boys Recreational Western Region & National Coach of the Year award. He was also given a Certificate of Recognition by the Rohnert Park City Council for outstanding coaching efforts and achievements in 2017.
Twenty-five children attended his very first program in 2018. Since then, he decided to split up the children into a 5 to 7-year old age group, which practice Mondays and Wednesdays, and an 8 to 10-year old age group, which practice Tuesdays and Thursdays. There are five sessions offered per year, each accommodating about twenty children per group, meaning Oliva teaches about 200 children per year. Each session runs six weeks, and costs $35, making it affordable to families in all socioeconomic groups. In fact, he hopes to offer scholarships to low-income families that cannot afford the fee if there is any grant money left over. The fee itself is only there to cover water, snacks and celebration and trophy costs for the kids. At the end of every 6-week session Soccer Stars holds a special celebration to congratulate the children by awarding them a medal or trophy and certificate and sharing a pizza meal together.
“The idea is not to make money with this program,” says Oliva. “The program is very cheap. All the money we collect from the families is to buy water for the kids, to celebrate the kids’ birthdays and give awards to the kids.”
Oliva embodies what it means to be community-service oriented. He has given his time for many years, simply for the love of the game and for the love of giving back to his community. Besides starting the Soccer Stars program, he also teaches soccer to Evergreen Elementary school children, where his two youngest sons attend, for free every Wednesday.
“For me my heart is so happy to do something for my community – to do something for all those kids,” says Oliva. “It’s good for the kids’ mental, physical and emotional health. It’s not just about kicking the soccer ball and scoring goals. It’s about teamwork and being nice and polite to the other players and parents. That’s the kinds of kids we need in the future.”
During inclement weather Soccer Stars classes are held at the indoor facilities of Burton Recreation Center and Gold Ridge Recreation Center. In spring and summer, classes are held outdoors, at Eagle Park. The grant money is being spent on a variety of soccer equipment including balls, soccer goals and nets, cones, flags, as well as other training apparatus.
Oliva also involves community leaders into the program to provide other positive role models to the children. Former Rohnert Park mayor Pam Stafford came to a Soccer Stars celebration in 2018, and Rohnert Park public safety chief Timothy Mattos came to a practice to introduce himself and speak with the players. Other community services department staff participated in Soccer Stars celebrations and this year, SSU women’s soccer team head coach Emiria Salzmann Dunn and her women players assisted at two sessions.
Oliva strongly believes in the health benefit and values that soccer instills, especially discipline, teamwork and camaraderie. Especially in this day and age when a lot of children use their free time to sit in front of electronic devices, it is especially important to get them outside and physically active. He hopes other parents will volunteer to make our collective community better.
“For me this is more motivation to continue to help my community,” says Oliva. “Some parents can’t help – they don’t have time and have to work. If you’re a parent that has time – let’s go help, let’s help our community!”