The First Goal is a non-profit organization based in Tijuana and San Diego which prides itself on promoting education and empowering under-privileged youth through the game of soccer and other athletic activities.
The organization is headed by a passionate husband and wife duo, Daniel Varela and Laurel Swanson. Their story is one of unique hardship, eventual triumph, and serves as an example of the power of true humanitarianism.
In 2012, Daniel was deported to Mexico from his home in San Diego County. Having lived in the area since he was 13, attending Torrey Pines High School and very much coming of age on the north side of the border, Daniel’s tale is an unfortunate normality; a visa-based deportation separating a lawful, loving and hard-working man from his family and friends, placing him in the perennial deportee purgatory that is Tijuana for thousands of people.
His then-girlfriend Laurel promised to keep hope alive, doing everything in her power to help her partner.
Daniel and Laurel not only went to the same high school but also the same college in Cuernavaca, Mexico (Universidad Nacional), but didn’t actually meet until years later in Encinitas.
Separated by a border and a legal struggle, their love only grew. Laurel routinely commuted from San Diego to Tijuana to be with Daniel, and stayed committed to pursuing a pathway for him to come back to the United States.
“She would cross the border every weekend to come and stay with me,” Daniel said. “Her family was incredibly supportive, as was mine. It was a difficult time for sure, but we never gave up.”
“The toughest part was the insecurity, not knowing if things were ever going to return to the way they were,” Laurel recalled. “I got my SENTRI Pass, which definitely made things easier with crossing the border so frequently. We also knew two other couples in Tijuana just like us, men who were deported with American girlfriends on the other side. They helped me a lot, keeping me level. But I’d talk to all of these other people who were going through similar struggles, and no one was ever getting back in. I know for Daniel, First Goal kept him motivated in so many ways.”
Soon after the forced move back to the south side of the frontera, Daniel was driving through the streets of his new neighborhood in Colonia Santa Fe de Tijuana. He rolled past the same school yard that he’d seen many times before, where he saw hundreds of kids congregating.
“Kids get lots of time off of school in Tijuana, and that’s not always good.”
“Teachers and school unions are commonly on strike. Teachers often times aren’t being treated right. And then the kids pay the ultimate price. It’s tough.”
“That one day though, something just hit me. I walked up to a huge group of kids and asked them if they wanted to help clean up a park the next day, the same park where I’d been doing my workouts and kicking the soccer ball around. They all said yes. The next day, we filled up at least 30 trash bags and made that local neighborhood park look beautiful.”
That day would prove to be the start of something very special.
“The kids would always see me doing physical training and playing soccer at that park. They started asking if they could join me. The kids were then exercising and playing soccer with me every day. It got to the point where at least a dozen kids at a time would be there with me. That’s when a few of the kids asked if we could start our own soccer team, and if I could be their coach. I said absolutely.”
“We were playing Futbol Siete (7 v. 7) at first, and we gradually grew into a bigger team, playing in a full field 11 v. 11 league a few miles away in Rosarito. It was amazing to see the growth of these kids, and what it all meant to them.”
Daniel then moved to a different neighborhood in Colonia Santa Fe, a few blocks up the road.
“There was an abandoned park near my house. It was the place where you were told not to go. There were gangs, drugs, even violence and murder. It was unsafe. This local man, Jose Santos, approached me though and asked if I could bring my school kids there. I was very hesitant, but I knew we could make it work. We started taking the program to that park, and within just a couple of months, we changed the perception of the park. We were hosting over 100 kids per week, girls and boys. That was when I really saw what this whole First Goal project was capable of.”
Still fighting his own battles with the U.S. Government, Daniel needed help in keeping The First Goal dream alive.
“Laurel began driving stuff down from SD to TJ, old televisions, secondhand clothes, shoes, and more, and together we would sell the stuff at the local flea market. We made ends meet, making just enough to keep everything going.”
The rewarding side of the work began coming in the form of the local community embracing the First Goal project.
“Families are now going to these parks,” Daniel said happily. “It’s about more than just soccer at that point. Families who were for so long afraid to step foot in a place are going to these parks! The local government even came in and put in a ton of money and helped us build a proper soccer field there in Colonia Santa Fe, a beautiful indoor soccer style facility with lights, stands, and everything. And the Saturday clean ups are still a thing.”
“It’s still a very violent area though, an area sadly plagued by homicide. And these kids, these great young people, they grow up with this stuff. It’s all so normal to them, too normal, which is a huge part of why this project is so important, the idea of trying to educate these kids in knowing that there are so many other ways to live their lives, to make money, to help their families, to just be cool, than to succumb to the world of drugs and violence.”
There is certainly a self-esteem side of The First Goal movement, and it has been felt in more ways than one.
“When these kids get their own uniforms, a new pair of shoes, a backpack for school… you should see the looks on their faces. They get a huge psychological boost out of that one little thing, whatever it may be. These kids are in need, and every last donation helps.”
“San Diego Surf recently donated uniforms. Over 100 kids in Tijuana now have their own uniforms, and with that type of stuff comes more devotion to the game. The confidence is growing by the day with these kids, and the playing level is going through the roof!”
In the time that Daniel called Tijuana his home, the psychological boost from The First Goal was felt just as much by he and Laurel.
“The First Goal not only kept Daniel motivated,” Laurel said, “it really kept him from falling into a path of depression and losing it all, which would have been so easy to do, and sadly we see it so much in these deportation situations, that bitter feeling of defeat. It was gratifying and invigorating to know that he and I were affecting change in Tijuana, all while dealing with the grueling and often ridiculous immigration process, spending almost all of our money on fees for applications and other paperwork, fighting to get him back home.”
Around the midway point of 2016, Laurel received a phone call that was four long years in the making.
“We were expecting to wait at least another six months on his latest waiver attempt,” she recalls, “And there was still no guarantee that it would be approved.”
“I was actually up in San Francisco for work, driving a van in the rain. My mom called me, and I sent it to voicemail. I was driving. Then she called at least three more times in the next minute. I finally answered, ’cause I was kind of worried. My boss, sitting in the passenger seat with his kids in the back, held my phone so I could keep driving. I even told my mom to make whatever she had to tell me quick, just to be safe on the road. She then tells me, in the quick and casual way I requested, that Danny got his waiver approved. I started bursting into tears.”
“The funniest part is that I actually found out before him. I called his parents to tell them, and they immediately tried calling him. Nobody could get in contact with him because he was out at the park with the kids in Tijuana!”
“Then when he finally got the news and tried to call me, I was going through airport security at SFO. Then I was stuck on a plane. It was this comical experience where we were both beside ourselves, but we somehow couldn’t talk. It was all so crazy, and honestly kind of hilarious.”
After four years of a cruel waiting game, life began moving extremely fast for Daniel and Laurel.
“We got married almost immediately,” said Laurel in a truly joyful tone. “We stayed with my parents for a little bit, and then we got out of my parents house and into our own place.”
“It was like, holy sh**, we’re back in this. It was a whole new process of adapting. When you get caught up in a battle like that one for four years, you almost aren’t prepared for the next life steps after winning that battle.”
One thing that would not change after Daniel’s return to the U.S. and the subsequent nuptials was the couple’s dedication to The First Goal program.
“We’re still doing the same things for these kids in Tijuana, and we have the exact same mission that we had since day 1,” Daniel proudly states. “We are here to help as many kids as possible, and to touch as many lives as possible. We’ve done it on a small scale. We can reproduce on a much bigger scale. We’re also doing work in National City and other places around San Diego now, and truly making this a project that can bring human-beings together on both sides of the border, and we need all the help we can get. One of the most rewarding things of all is seeing kids who played with us when we first starting who are still involved with the program, helping us continue to build.”
“In this current social climate, especially with living on the border in the Trump age, we are getting caught up in basing everything on race, ethnicity, and cultural stereotypes. I’m a Mexican man, and I’m proud of it, but I’m also a lot more than just a Mexican, the same way Laurel is a lot more than just a white American woman. We are humans above all else, caring humans, and it’s incredible how much influence we can have on one another when we look at things this way. We can create better relations and have better understandings of all of our own unique cultures.”
Laurel echoed that sentiment, spotlighting that one of the most dangerous tools of hate is the fear of the unknown.
“The racism and hate we’re addressing is as much fear as anything else. I have friends here in San Diego who’ve lived here their whole lives, and they’ve never once been to Mexico. Not even down to Tijuana! Are you kidding me? They’ll tell me it’s because they’re scared. But what are they scared of? So often it’s that fear of the unknown, basing everything on the stereotypes that hurt our ability to connect on a human level. It’s the same principle as someone in Mexico thinking that all white American people hate them because of something the President said on television. A lack of proper perspective fuels fear. Fear fuels hate, from all angles.”
“Once we see beyond that border, not just the actual border but that cultural and racial border, and we see the human connection that’s possible at all times, it’s incredibly powerful. It can defeat those stereotypes. The concept of a cross-border community and cross-border programs, it takes away that hate, that racism, that fear. Once you connect on a human level, there is no more fear of the unknown.”
Some of the kids within The First Goal were part of a very special piece of history this June, a small group of 9 & 10-year-old players becoming the first team from the program to travel to the United States to play in a tournament.
“It was a futsal tournament at Balboa Park in San Diego, and it was incredible,” Daniel said glowingly. “Very few kids can actually cross due to all the border restrictions. But the few that were able to cross came up and had an amazing time. Our friend Josh Bartel helped us out with the uniforms, of course having us decked out in Colombia kits. Josh wouldn’t have had it any other way. The kids loved every single minute of it, and it meant the world to them just to have that experience.”
“The kids had never played futsal, but they learned quick. Adapting was tough, but sometimes in life you’ve got to think on the fly. They lost their first two games to the teams that ended up playing in the little championship match, but they won their last game. I told them it’s always good to end on a high note.”
There’s no telling where The First Goal could go from here. With feet firmly planted on both sides of the border, Daniel and Laurel are excited for the next chapters in this engaging and ever developing story.
(Stay tuned to SoccerNation for more on The First Goal. Be sure to visit TheFirstGoal.org and follow The First Goal Inc. on Facebook to find out how you can be a part of this ever-growing humanitarian project.)