Via The Washington Post, a report on an inspiring youth soccer club which follows a pay-what-you-can model and provides social services for players and their families, working to dismantle the barriers of the pay-to-play youth sports system by supporting low-income, immigrant and refugee youth in Portland:

Across the street from where his youth soccer teams practice, Kaig Lightner stepped through a garage door behind an old industrial building on a cold Monday night in November. Car seats sat on the concrete floor in a corner. A refrigerator hummed in the back, and plywood tables lined the drab walls. Lightner and a dozen other coaches and volunteers from the Portland Community Football Club began to sort bags of flour and rice. They unpacked boxes of macaroni with jars of spaghetti sauce and set them out on the tables alongside rolls of toilet paper, bars of soap and packs of toothbrushes.

Soon, Lightner’s players and their families began to pull into the cramped parking lot in front of the garage, as they do every month to receive food and toiletries. It was three nights before Thanksgiving, the temperatures had dropped, and everyone was paying more for heat. The kids and their parents were bundled up as they walked in with empty cloth grocery bags and boxes, and Lightner met each of them with a big smile and a hug.

The kids hadn’t been able to play soccer for weeks after a strike by local teachers shut down their field. That night, Lightner asked his players if they had been practicing on their own. Then he told them to grab whatever they needed.

“This will help us a lot,” said Diego Sanchez Tasej, whose two children have played for PCFC and whose daughter accompanied him to the garage to collect supplies. “Everyone is welcome.”

These were the same families Lightner had been scared might cut ties with his program after he came out as a transgender man seven years before. None of them left. Instead, they accepted him and, for the first time in his life as a coach, gave him a place to fully belong. Now their program is stronger than ever, with nearly double the participation and an operating budget increase over the past year.

It is an outlier in a youth sports landscape that is ruled by pay-to-play, an industry through which billions of private equity dollars flow, widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Lightner offers an alternative: a pay-what-you-can model that provides Portland’s marginalized youths an affordable soccer program and helps players and their families navigate social service systems.

“When I tell most people what I do, a lot of them say, ‘Oh, that’s so cute,’ ” Lightner said. “This isn’t cute camp. We are actually a youth soccer club with wraparound services. We want to start a national movement. We know this can work in other communities.”

Portland is among the Whitest cities in the country, and for years Lightner observed the lack of opportunities for the city’s underrepresented kids. He launched PCFC in 2013 to serve low-income, racially diverse and LGBTQ+ youths, spreading the word through schools and free clinics. Many of them had never played on an organized soccer team. Most did not have cleats or shin guards. Lightner charged $50 to join, but if a family didn’t have that much — or had no money at all — the kids could still play, and Lightner would often drive them to and from practices. No one was cut, and teams were not divided by gender.

Lightner didn’t want to churn out elite prospects. He focused on developing players by giving them access to skilled coaches and quality competition, and he became a father figure to many of them. Yet he knew the club could not reach its full potential as an inclusive and equitable space until he told them fully about himself.

On a rainy day in May 2017, he called his players together in the middle of the field before practice. The group of kids were mostly first- and second-generation immigrants. He could feel his body shake with nerves.

“I haven’t totally shared something about myself that is kind of important,” he told them. “It’s an important thing for me to share with you because we all should be who we are; we all should be exactly who we want to be.”

The players grew silent. Lightner fidgeted with the zipper on his green jacket. His voice wavered.

“Some of you may or may not know this, but I am transgender,” he said.

Some of the kids sheepishly laughed. One of them asked how old Lightner was. Another one walked up to Lightner and wrapped his arms around him.

“If you think about someone like me, I was born a girl. I didn’t really feel like I was a girl. I really felt like a boy. But I had to play soccer as a girl. I was raised a girl,” Lightner told his players.

“I got told a lot of things as a soccer player as a girl, that I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do that. I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t strong enough, or I was too strong, I acted too much like a boy,” he continued. “… I bet you all have had somebody say something about the color of your skin, or the way you talk, or the country your parents are from, or any of that; that is really similar to how I got treated as a kid, too.”

Lightner was born in 1980, and by the time he was 4 years old, he felt he was a boy. He loved playing with G.I. Joes and Legos while growing up in a leafy suburb of Seattle. He dressed like a boy and encountered relentless bullying from the second grade through high school as others questioned his gender identity nearly every day.

Lightner was obsessed with sports. He excelled at volleyball, soccer, basketball and softball, and by the time he was 15, he had discovered coaching. By 17, he was the coach of his own girls’ soccer team, and he had found his life’s work.

“I was just like: ‘Wow, this is so amazing. This is naturally so easy for me,’ ” he said.

After rowing crew at the University of Washington, where he competed with the women’s team but was often mistaken for a member of the men’s, he moved to Portland. By 2007, he had changed his name to Kaig (pronounced Cage) and began taking testosterone. He flew to Baltimore with his parents to have gender-affirming surgery, and after a week of recovery in a hotel, he began to see the change in his physical appearance that he had always wanted.

Lightner returned to Portland and devoted himself to social work with young people whom he hadn’t seen on the fields while volunteer coaching in some of the wealthiest parts of the city. He sketched out his idea for a new club on a piece of paper and by 2013, aided by a grant from Nike, launched PCFC.

He had come out to everyone but his players. He was worried about the narratives in the coaching community that get attached to out coaches and decided to focus on building his club. But in 2017, when he gathered with a group of coaches at a conference, one of them asked, “Kaig, you’re out to your players, right?”

When Lightner said no, the coach told Lightner he had an important story to tell to those who looked up to him.

“I was very nervous. I was very unsure of what it would be. How would people respond? Would people walk off the field? Would kids just look at me like I’m a total freak? I spent many decades of my life thinking of myself as a freak and thinking of myself as somebody who did not belong,” Lightner said.

“I was having a hard time getting my words at first,” he continued. “As soon as the word ‘transgender’ came out of my mouth and I looked across all those kids and nobody walked away, nobody did anything . . . it was the final frontier for me.”

The club continued to grow, and in 2019 Lightner faced his first real crisis as a manager. A PCFC parent had been served an eviction notice and was going to be thrown out of an apartment in 72 hours. The kids would be out on the street, and Lightner had no money to give. The best he could do was connect the family with housing services across the city. Lightner felt he had not done enough.

The next year, as the pandemic kept the program off the field for months, Lightner devoted some funding intended for soccer, along with a coronavirus relief grant, to social services for his families. He and his staff acted as intermediaries to help the families navigate housing applications. The club worked with a pro-bono law firm to provide legal support when needed. If parents or their kids needed mental health counseling, the club arranged it. PCFC set up a food pantry and donated whatever funds it could to help families with emergencies. When one of the families’ homes burned down, Lightner scraped together $300 and dipped into the club’s budget to help buy the family clothes and gift cards.

Even after the pandemic, the club has continued to secure funding to help families off the field. Last spring, when a family immigrated and signed its kids up to play, they were temporarily living in a shelter. Within 72 hours, Carolina Hernandez Morales, PCFC’s Family Services Manager, helped find them an apartment and bought them food, diapers and clothing.

“They try their best to support families in every way possible. Sometimes, when they have extra clothing [at the food bank], that’s very helpful. If you need resources with electricity, if you need resources with rent, they do their best to accommodate you,” said Marisol Lozano, whose two children, 12-year-old Antonio and 13-year-old Solei, have played for PCFC for five years. “It has really impacted our lives, significantly. [Lightner] is always making you feel very welcome, like you’re a part of it, like, ‘What can we do to help?’ That’s very important to me, I feel, because he’s the first person we got used to seeing all the time. The kids got really attached to him.”

Those attachments and relationships to the kids and families keep Lightner going. But he has wrestled with a complex question: How can PCFC continue to grow, even inspire other clubs nationally to adopt its model, without sacrificing the program’s soul? PCFC’s numbers have grown from 75 to more than 200, but Lightner doesn’t want to grow for the sake of growing. The night after the club’s monthly food drive in November, he found a quiet corner at a food court on the east side of the city to meet with Nina Byrd, a well-known consultant and business strategist in Portland.

Byrd pulled out her laptop and showed Lightner a presentation from the Aspen Institute of the newest data on youth sports participation and trends, which included a few bright spots. A national poll found 52 percent of Americans believe youth sports deserve public funding, that some state governments are leaning toward pouring more money into sports activities in disadvantaged communities and that philanthropic investment in elementary school and middle school sports is increasing in some major cities.

But the report also outlined a pervasive issue: The industry is still being affected by billions of dollars in private equity, and that has caused many big organizations to grow and smaller clubs to shrink. Lightner and Byrd talked about how those trends might impact the club and Lightner’s national campaign, which is called Liberate Sports.

“PCFC is the model that can change the industry,” Byrd told Lightner.

On a giant whiteboard in Lightner’s office, hanging next to a photo of Ted Lasso and the decade-old sheet of paper with the initial plans for PCFC, is a list labeled “Big Dreams.” He wants to one day build a clubhouse for the team, have a full-time food pantry, have a consistent playing space for his kids and hold classes on cooking, nutrition and sports and medicine.

With the teachers’ strike ongoing, it had been a difficult month for Lozano, the mother of two PCFC players. She could tell her children, without school or soccer, were struggling emotionally.

A single parent, Lozano was trying to keep them active by holding drills in the living room of their apartment while also starting a new remote job.

“In my house, soccer is a passion. We take it serious,” said Lozano, whose children were finally able to return to the field in early December when the strike ended. At the first practice in weeks, the stadium lights popped on once the sun went down, a reminder to Lightner of all the times in its early years when the club practiced in the dark at a local park. As he watched his players scrimmage, he jumped in and played with them. Then he called the players together and talked to them about making good decisions.

“In those moments, in any coaching moment,” he said, “I feel completely as one whole person.”


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