What is Family?

Fam3Christmas is traditionally a time to be with family. April and I have great memories of times with our parents when we were children, and times with our own children when they were small. This year, we will all be having a bit of a reunion in Oklahoma, with all of our children, the in-laws and extended family.

As many of you know, the word “family” has been an elastic term in our household. First there were our biological blessings, Isaiah, Josiah and Alaina. And then God led us on an amazing journey to adopt Ruben and Abby. And then came LJ and Josh, our godsons who grew up across the street, and who we add to as many family gatherings as possible. This year has stretched our idea of “children” one more time, as we have become guardians for Anthony, Agustin and Gabriel.

“Guardianship” we have found is particularly difficult to navigate. It is this in-between stage that our society has never been able to clearly define. What do you do in a situation when children have biological parents, but those parents are not able to care for their children? Its difficult to have them call us “mom and dad”, yet these children have expressed the longing to have a “mom and dad”. We all don’t quite know what to call the current situation. Some of our other children struggle with thinking of them as “brothers”.  And what about the grandparents and extended family? We haven’t made it particularly easy on them.

As I look for answers, I have discovered that the scriptures are full of God redefining the word “family”. A few examples:

  • In Matthew 12:50, Jesus tells us that his own “brothers, sisters and mother” are not the biological ones, but rather “those who do the will of my Father in heaven.”
  • In Matthew 19 and Mark 10, the parable of the rich young ruler ends not with a statement so much about money, but a statement about family. “No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields–and with them, persecutions)”.
  • Paul starts off his first letter to Timothy with “To Timothy, my true son in the faith.”

God Himself appears to be on a mission to continually add to His own family. John 1:12 and Ephesians 1:5 tell us that those who have received Jesus through faith become the adopted children of God. (Unfortunately, not everyone wants to be adopted.)

Christmas is not really about Jesus. It’s about God the Father starting a family, a family that he wants to include YOU in and many others in. Romans 8:29, “That [Jesus] might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”  So, as you celebrate this Christmas, celebrate the birthday of Jesus, your older brother (or if he isn’t YOUR older brother, seriously consider changing that!), but also be like your Father, and open your arms bigger than you thought you could, and accept some new “family” into your home, into your goofy traditions, your Christmas meal time, your football game watching, etc., etc.  Look particularly to those whose families are broken (James 1:27).  I challenge you to search through the Bible and look for all the ways God calls us out on our sometimes selfish idea of what “family” is and post some of those on our blog or Facebook page. Our experience has been that children, all children, are a blessing from the Lord, however they get into the family.

Merry Christmas

Coach Maria

PA030624A distinctive aspect of RYAA is the young age of its coaches and referees. Youth and young adults are given a unique opportunity to engage with kids through soccer.

This year, Maria, an eighth-grade student, was one of our youngest coaches. Maria remembers how, as a preschooler, she asked an older friend what game he was playing. He told her it was called soccer and then took her under his wing and taught her what he knew about the game. As a fifth-grader, Maria heard about RYAA from friends and was longing to play, but unfortunately missed the deadline. Next year, since she had kept her grades up, her Mom agreed to enroll her and Maria played on a real team for the first time. Since then, soccer has been a major part of Maria’s life, and she has dreams of playing in college, either at UC Davis or somewhere in Florida.

This year, Maria decided to try her hand and coaching. Although she could have played soccer without working, Maria was excited about the opportunity. She remembers some initial nervousness at the prospect of coaching, but she related to us mid-season how much it was teaching her.

When asked what she has learned from coaching thus far, without hesitation, Maria answered, “coaching isn’t easy. Kids don’t always pay attention and respect you.” She has been learning to find a balance, being respectful of her players while simultaneously teaching them to respect her authority. She is furthermore learning that “little kids are small but have LOTS of energy!” Even so, she had to constantly figure out how to work them hard without overdoing it.

Coaching soccer has not only taught valuable leadership skills, but has also been a tool through which Maria was able to become more involved in her community. She sees members from her team at school every day, and is now able to greet them by name and ask how they are doing. Not only that, but throughout the season, Maria invited peers to help her coach. Those who helped out at practices and games could receive up to six hours of the community service hours needed to graduate. Many of her friends agreed to help, and a few became consistently involved.

Though she may only be in eighth grade, Maria has been an example of 1 Timothy 4:12 “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young. Coaching at RYAA is not about knowing all about the game or the art of coaching; it’s not about your record or experience. It is about taking an interest in a group of kids and creating a fun environment for them to play ball. Thank you for your time and energy, Maria!

Following God – What an Adventure

P8240019Clara Wong hails from Michigan and recently volunteered for 3 months with RYAA as part of a gap year between high school and college. Below is her final reflection on her time with us as she goes back to Michigan, and likely to Honduras for her next adventure. We miss her already! Follow her blog at http://clarasviajescondios.blogspot.com

Following God—what an adventure. Sometimes there is so much to say, so much that He’s taught, so much to be thankful for, that finding words is overwhelming. But I will try anyway! These past three months in East Palo Alto have been such an amazing time of growth and joy.

It probably seems foolish in the eyes of the world to coach soccer without an ounce of experience with playing soccer, let alone coaching it. And it probably is foolish. Soccer is not my strength.  But in this time, God has taught me more fully what it means that in our weakness, He can be stronger. I remember one time in particular, when my assistant coach, who has been a huge help, was last-minute unable to make it to practice. He usually lead the first half of practice, and I the second half, and I had prepared ahead of time expecting it to be that way. When I found out twenty minutes before practice that he wasn’t coming, I scrambled to figure out more activities to do, but came up rather dry. But the time came, and I had to go without much plan. I walked to the field, praying, “God, I really need you to come through tonight! I don’t know how I am going to lead this team well! I honestly feel like I really don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know a lot about soccer and I feel like I can’t improvise. Please, provide!” and He did. I asked one of the players dads, a former soccer player, if he would be willing to help out with some drills that night. He was more than happy to help and led the boys through drills until the sun was gone. I saw for one of the first times in my life what it means to rely on God. Honestly, in my life, most of the places I’ve been, I can handle everything. How many times have I said, “God, help me,” and then proceeded to do everything on my own power? But this time, God took me to a place that was actually beyond myself. I cried out to God and He provided. He didn’t magically give me knowledge about soccer or how to coach. Because He has something different in store. This is not ABOUT me knowing everything there is to know about soccer. It’s not about doing everything I can to keep from looking stupid! When I came to the end of myself, I saw a parent involved in his child’s life, and in the life of the community. I saw him engaging, I saw him living vicariously through the boys. And if I knew what I was doing, that wouldn’t be the case. God really moved that night, and it was in a great moment of weakness.

I believe that God has also begun to make me a more honest person. In my time here, I played with kids during recess at Cesar Chavez school. I quickly saw much brokenness and many kids in difficult situations. The sense of hopelessness was strong. At first, I tried to fend off this hopelessness through optimism; I would use one positive interaction or one “good day” to assume that everything was going to turn around and be alright. But God broke through those walls of over-optimism and made me more honest with myself and with Him. When I let the hurt and the heartache get to me, it really did. It was hard to believe that a few minutes of playing could do ANYTHING for the amount of brokenness in that place. It was even more hard to believe that God was actually PRESENT there. I began to doubt if He was moving at all. Turns out that place of doubt was the first step in God teaching me what it means to live in a world that is “still trembling in the wake of the fall” and yet to never forget that we serve a God who is ultimately going to wipe away every tear. We are living between the already and the not yet. Christ already did what it takes for us to live with God; but He hasn’t come back yet. He is going to bring foretastes of redemption, yes; but final redemption has not come yet, and until it does, there will still be tears for all those hurting. And our job is to keep letting our hearts be broken for the brokenness, so that we hunger more for Christ to come. Through time and many wise, encouraging people, God brought me to a place of peace, where I realized that He hears the cries of His afflicted ones and will surely finish whatever work He started. This is perhaps one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned since being here.

I am so grateful for the three months I’ve had in East Palo Alto, to get a bigger glimpse of life and of the God we serve. It has been an immense privilege and I hope I never stop thanking God for it.

RYAA Impacts a Soccer Player

Leslie was raised in the West Side of East Palo Alto. She has been a soccer player for RYAA for a number of years and has experienced being a player, as well as a coach here. We interviewed Leslie on the impact that RYAA has had on her, as well as some of her dreams and aspirations as she graduates from Menlo-Atherton High School this Spring.

Where would you like to go to college, and what do you want to study there?

I want to go to Azusa Pacific University and I want to major in Performing Arts and minor in Psychology.

What are some of your goals with that degree?

My goals with Psychology are to help other people. I want to be a counselor and help kids that have problems with their family, or even with behavior. I just want to be there and be someone they can open up to. I had problems when I was younger that did not get better until I saw a therapist, so that’s what I eventually want to be. With Performing Arts I want to become a better singer and performer. People do not understand the guts that you have to have when you get on stage, not just to sing, but to open your heart and tell a story. It’s like I can tell my life through a song when I’m on stage, and I want to continue to do that. I want to record music, and I want to have big concerts.

How many years have you been playing soccer for RYAA?

The first time I played with RYAA, I was in 7th grade. I remember I played for a team called The Blue Jays, and our uniforms were blue and black. My coach was April. 

What were you able to learn as a player in the RYAA league?

When I first started playing, I was very shy. Then I learned that to play on a team, you can’t just play with your teammates, but you should get to know your teammates in order to bring leadership to the field. I love being the captain, not because I want to boss people around, but I just want to be there for my teammates. 

From what you have learned at RYAA, what makes a good leader?

A good leader is someone who can tell you if you did something wrong, but in a way that builds you up. I learned this from my coaches while with RYAA. In club soccer, it’s really different. A lot of times other coaches just tell you what to do and how you messed up, but at RYAA they want to teach you and serve you. So I think a leader serves, and a leader builds people up instead of putting them down all the time.

How has your experienced been being a coach for RYAA?

Being a coach has taught me so much. It is hard and you are forced to be a leader, but I love it. I have to be harsh, but sensitive at the same time. These girls bring their emotions from home to the soccer field, and it’s up to me to lead them through those emotions and make them focus on soccer. I love being there for people, and being a coach allows me to be there for girls that don’t have anyone else to talk to. I thank RYAA for opening the doors for me to be a coach. 

Tell us your favorite story from being a coach.

I will never forget this. One of my little players, she told me, “I want to be JUST like you when I grow up. I want to play like you and I just want to be like you. I just love you.” My heart melted, you know? I never had anybody tell me that. It was huge.

From players to coaches

Developing leaders has always been one of RYAA’s goals in the community of East Palo Alto. One of the ways RYAA develops these young leaders is through allowing them to coach. Many of the coaches in the Fall soccer league are youth that played in the league, or still play now, but take the time to coach a team. They plan and conduct 2 practices per week, coach during games, but more importantly they get a chance to be role models to younger kids. Moises Acuna is a 19-year-old who played in RYAA’s soccer league when he was younger, and then decided to take on this challenge of being a coach and influence youth in a positive way. He answered a few questions for us about him, his experience as a player, as well as his goals as a coach.

How old were you when you started playing for RYAA? I was 12.

What was your favorite thing about any of your coaches while you were playing? The creativity they used to train me mixing enjoyable fun with practical skills. 

What is your main goal as you are now a coach? What do you want the kids to gain out of their playing experience? My main goal as a coach is to teach these kids how to play soccer as well as how to deal with issues on the field that can help them deal with problems at home or school. I want them to gain more knowledge of the sport as well as more knowledge about themselves for example, perseverance: to be able to push themselves farther than they think they are capable of.  

What is your dream job? My dream job is to become a Veterinarian and open an animal hospital here in our community and a learning center where children can come and explore and learn about different animals as well as finding a tutoring program that can help them with there studies. I wanna be there role model showing them that no matter where you come from you can be something great and make a difference in your community. But only God can help me get there. 



Head to the Bible Club Tent!

One of RYAA’s main missions has always been community development in the East Palo Alto/ East Menlo Park areas. But it goes farther than just community development, sports and fun. RYAA’s most important mission is to develop kids spiritually. Through Bible teaching and lessons, RYAA looks to expose the community to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. One of the outreach ways is the Bible Club Tent on Saturdays. Kids are encouraged to attend after their respective games, and small Bible lessons are conducted there by volunteers. April Pekary, the wife of Executive Director of RYAA Shannon Pekary, shares with us a few things about her experience as the overseer of the Bible Club Tent.

How long have you been living/serving in the EPA community?

We have lived in East Palo Alto since we were married in 1991. We’ve raised our 5 children here.

When did the Bible Club Tents start?

When we started RYAA 7 years ago, we had a vague idea that somehow we wanted to share the gospel with our community using soccer to get their attention. We started a teen girls Bible club that year on Wednesday nights, which still continues today. On the field, we began by just laying out a blanket and having a little bible club after the youngest players’ games. A friend who teaches bible clubs came to help. The following year, we spiffed it up by putting out a canopy with benches for children to sit on. Every year it has gotten bigger and better.

What have been some of the hardest/discouraging things about it?

Last year, our wonderful, faithful bible club teacher, Debbie,  broke her arm badly while playing with the kids. She was unable to return to teach for the season. Meanwhile, I had walking pneumonia. I knew we had to find a way that this ministry can happen without me or Debbie. This year, we have a soccer bible club team consisting of about 10 people. It’s been a wonderful transition. The hardest thing about bible clubs is gathering the children. So many of the parents are in a hurry to get home after their soccer games, and they don’t want to wait another 10 minutes for Bible club. Once the children come to club they seem to really enjoy it, so it’s disappointing when the parents don’t let them come. This can be discouraging, but I’m learning that it is God that draws who needs to be there.

What are some of the ways leading the Bible Club Tent has been rewarding/encouraging?

Teaching children the good news of Jesus has been awesome!! So many of them are very responsive. So few of them know anything about God’s stories in the Bible. It is amazingly sweet to see the bright-eyed children that are particularly drawn to God and want to sing and learn all they can.

How many kids usually attend?

We have clubs as small as 2 children and as large as 25 happening throughout the day, mostly as soccer games end. I would estimate 60 or more children attend club each week.