Westmont Magazine Saving the Children
Russ Carr ’56 went to Guatemala City for a soccer match and left with a new purpose in life. The coach for a squad sponsored by the State Department, he welcomed the chance to play the Guatemalan national team. But the moment he stepped outside his high-rise hotel into a cluttered alley, the game became secondary. All he could think about were the dirty, dishevelled children digging there for food amid the foul-smelling trash. They looked at him nervously, with dark eyes darting under unkempt black hair. He started talking to them and learned they lived in boxes, without parents, without support, without hope.
For three days, Russ and the team adopted the children, bringing them food and blankets and smuggling them into the hotel to the displeasure of the staff. The kids even sat excitedly on the team bench during the soccer match. Before they left Guatemala, the players bought shoe-shine kits for the youth to help them earn a living.
The plight of these children — and many others throughout the world — haunted Russ. He sensed God calling him to help them. In 1983, after 17 successful years as a collegiate soccer coach, Russ left Westmont to start Sports Outreach Institute.
His departure surprised many people. Described by a sports reporter as the John Wooden of soccer, Russ compiled one of the most impressive records of any soccer coach in the country: 211-108-26. Although he had never played or coached soccer before he returned to Westmont in 1966, he led the Warriors to a national championship in 1972 as well as 11 NAIA district titles and seven area championships. His teams always made the playoffs in an era when Westmont regularly played UCLA, USC, Stanford and San Diego State. There was only one ranking for college soccer teams; Westmont usually made the top 10.
Named National Coach of the Year in 1972, Russ earned 22 district or area Coach of the Year honors. He also directed a collegiate all-star squad and helped to select U.S. Olympic teams. In addition, he taught education classes and chaired the department at Westmont.
“My coaching philosophy was simple,” he says. “If you’re going to be the best, you have to play the best.” He focused on recruiting talented players, especially from overseas. “My goal was to build people of character and integrity who walked with Christ,” he explains.
Russ allowed anyone to try out for team. He never cut a player; the rigorous preseason weeded them out. Although he had no budget for it, he started a junior varsity team to allow less adept students to play.
Russ understood the power of sports in students’ lives. He participated in football and baseball in high school and college and even aspired to enter the major leagues. The first Westmont student to graduate with a major in physical education, he began his career as a coach, teacher and principal at schools in Oregon and Washington. He took a keen interest in soccer when he taught for a year in Germany and later in England.
All these experiences led to Sports Outreach Institute. In Guatemala City and other places he discovered that kicking around a soccer ball attracted dozens of children. “I saw sports as a way to reach kids for Christ — and to meet their physical needs,” he says.
An organization with 75 employees in five countries (Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Mexico and the United States), SOI trains people in the use of sports ministry. For Russ, the bottom line is working with children. The group organizes activities like sports leagues for kids in the slums and feeds more than 2,000 children daily. Kids learn how to clean up their neighborhoods and take care of themselves through SOI service projects. As they work on digging sewage ditches or picking up trash, their elders sometimes join them and learn from their example. SOI also provides vocational training and pays tuition for children who lack free public education. Always, SOI cultivates faith in Christ.
For 23 years, SOI has joined with other agencies to help impoverished children. Sadly, the need has grown more critical and the situation more horrific. In Uganda, rebels hold guns to children’s heads and force them to kill their parents. The boys continue killing as enslaved soldiers for the rebels. The girls become prostitutes for grown men.
“I’ve traveled along a 12-mile dirt road outside of Gulu, Uganda, where there are seven refugee camps,” Russ says. “Hundreds of thousands of people live in squalid mud huts, little more than dirt and sticks holding up a grass roof. When you look into these hovels, there may be 12 people huddled together. But it’s the eyes of the children I remember most, the ones who’ve escaped from the rebels. These kids have been traumatized by their captors, and they’re ostracized when they return. We’re training people to counsel them using sports, art and music as therapeutic tools. We also teach about reconciliation, encouraging people to forgive youngsters who may have killed their relatives. In these situations, the only hope I can offer is faith in Christ. That’s why we started SOI.”