Refugee children in Silicon Valley score goals thanks to Catholic Charities San Francisco

Children Playing Soccer

Diana Otero has worked with Catholic Charities San Francisco (SF), a grantee of SVCF’s under our immigration grantmaking program, since 2001 and serves as program director for the organization’s Immigrant Services department in San Mateo. Catholic Charities SF has received grants from SVCF to support legal services infrastructure for immigrants. One of the services Otero’s department provides is to guide and advise unaccompanied minors through the immigration process and help them understand their rights under United States law.

These young people are one of the most underserved and vulnerable refugee populations in the country, Otero says. And although they are remarkably resilient, these children long for safety, care, family and a place to call home. And sometimes a little fun.

Playing on the field
Catholic Charities’ unaccompanied minor clients enjoying their favorite sport.

That’s why Otero and her team planned a special event. “We simply asked the kids what possible gifts they would like to receive, if they could ask for anything,” says Otero. “I thought that these young kids were for sure going to ask us for computers, iPads, or other expensive items,” says Otero, “Instead, their answer was surprisingly simple and powerful: Can we play soccer one day? And we did. The community joined us and together we enjoyed playing their favorite sport, soccer.”

2015 winners receiving medals at the first annual Catholic Charities Futbol con Corazon tournament.

In November 2015, over 150 people from the community attended the soccer game at St. Francis of Assisi Church in East Palo Alto. Guests included staff from Catholic Charities of Santa Clara and Catholic Charities of the East Bay, news anchors Cesar Bayona, Gabriel Sotelo and Angel Ayon from Telemundo, Univision News anchor Maria Leticia Gomez, San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos, former Redwood City Mayor Alicia Aguirre and former East Palo Alto Mayor Laura Martinez.

“It was powerful to see the positive impact this event had on the kids,” says Sandy Becerra, Refugee and Immigrant Services at Catholic Charities. “Seeing them interact with each other and with those who came to support was very rewarding. The smiles on the kids’ faces showed how much it meant to them to know that people here in Silicon Valley are aware of them and care about them. There was a strong sense of community felt by all.” 

Donated Soccer Balls

Players take home soccer balls donated by ESPN Espanol.

Catholic Charities’ San Mateo office provides legal services to about 60 children per year who are fleeing violence from some of the most dangerous countries in the world. The vast majority of these kids are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, countries plagued with some of the highest rates of homicide in the world because of rampant gang violence and organized crime. The governments of these countries lack the ability to protect youth due to corruption and lack of infrastructure, Otero says. Most of the kids she works with have been victims of gang violence or domestic violence. All of them have braved difficult, sometimes terrifying journeys and arrive in the United States alone and frightened.

Participants listen as Diana Otero, program director of Catholic Charities Refugee & Immigrant Services, announces the day’s winners.

A second game was held this year, though Otero says it’s not clear whether she’ll find the funding to do a similar event on an annual basis. Besides coordinating their legal cases, Otero and her team organize several activities each year to help ease the childrens’ transition. This past summer, the children met actor John Leguizamo at Berkeley Rep, watched soccer teams AC Milan and Liverpool FC play at Levi’s Stadium, visited the Google campus and learned about finances and college opportunities with Latino Walmart employees.

Purple Team
San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos and Purple Team start a match for 2016’s recent Futbol con Corazon tournament.

Otero describes the experience these kids have had during the soccer game and other outings: “Seeing the faces of these kids as they played was priceless. These have been unforgettable experiences for them, and they would have never had these opportunities were it not for the incredible support of our community. Although we can’t provide everything they might need, we are trying to take concrete steps as a community to make sure they know that they are welcome, that their presence is valued and appreciated.” 

All Teams Posing
All eight teams pose with Q, mascot of the San Jose Earthquakes.

To learn more about the Catholic Charities’ Refugee & Immigrant services, visit All photos courtesy of Catholic Charities San Francisco. 

To learn more about SVCF’s grantmaking strategy on immigration: