- The Washington Times - Friday, June 17, 2005

Michael Schell has no job, no home and few prospects. He does, however, have a corporate sponsor and on this night a formidable opponent in a group of soccer-playing 13-year-old girls.

This is supposed to be a friendly match, but Schell is taking it seriously. A girl nonchalantly runs to retrieve a stray ball, and the 6-foot-1 Schell knocks her down and triumphantly boots the ball toward an open goal.

Schell is a member of Art Works Football Club, a soccer team composed of homeless people from Charlotte, N.C. The club was in the District this week to tour the nation’s capital and visit with the D.C. United soccer team, and the National Church of the Nazarene offered to put up the players.

Debbie Randall, who volunteered to cook dinner for the team after receiving an e-mail of community service opportunities, offered her daughter and four of her friends as Art Works’ competition Tuesday night. Nothing was bruised or broken — and a stained-glass window only briefly endangered — and there were no bruised feelings either: The teams didn’t keep score, so there was no loser.

The warm-up against the teenage set dispensed with, Schell and his Art Works teammates now have their sights set on competition more their own size — and much farther afield. Art Works FC, fortified by sponsorships from Nike and Eurosport, will travel to Edinburgh, Scotland, next month as the U.S. representative in the Homeless World Cup.

“They’re not just a soccer team,” said Jessica Woody, coach of the team she co-founded last year. “They’re giving a face to homelessness. They’re trailblazers. They can inspire other homeless people.”

One of the players, Stephanie Johnson, 45, says God led her to the team. The Baltimore native spent her entire paycheck on a bus ticket to Charlotte, giving into a recurring feeling that somehow she belonged there.

One day Johnson stopped by the Urban Ministry Center for some food. Volunteers at the center urged her to come there more often and, when she eventually obliged, recruited her into Art Works FC.

“I never understood why [they wanted me to go more often],” Johnson said. “But I needed something do to. God told me to get there.”

For Abdul Wright, soccer is life. He first realized he loved soccer in 1995, when he played for a Job Corps team. Now he is one of Art Works’ more dedicated players, earning one of the eight spots for the trip to Scotland.

“When you’re not working, you have something to look forward to,” Wright said. “I’ve got soccer going for me, if nothing else.”

Miss Woody and Lawrence Cann, an art teacher at the center, founded Charlotte’s homeless soccer team last June.

“It’s great to watch,” Miss Woody said. “During that time, they’re not thinking about being homeless. They feel they’re a part of society.”

The goal of the programs is to encourage the homeless to gradually integrate themselves back into society. When a pass to a teammate turns into a goal, it reinforces the idea that people can work together successfully toward a common goal. Through soccer, players learn skills that already have helped some leave the street. People are eligible to play if they have been homeless within the past year.

Homeless soccer started just recently in the United States — only New York and Charlotte have teams — but it is popular in Europe. In Switzerland, players were required to try out for the national homeless soccer team. About 70 candidates showed up, and the coaches selected 16 players from six homeless squads.

An estimated 32 teams from nations such as Brazil, Norway and South Africa will participate in the Homeless World Cup from July 19 to July 24.

But for Art Works FC, its Tuesday night match against the five girls was just as exciting. The program was meant to help the homeless, but it may be as beneficial for others as well.

“The thing that tickled me pink was the girls had such a good time,” Mrs. Randall said. “The girls came in with a little bit of a preconceived notion [of homeless people], but they learned they’re just people, too.”

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