From Where We Are

Soccer for Social Change

How a USC graduate is using futbol to change lives

[Photo of a soccer ball in a grass pitch]

One non-profit strives to bring low-income youth together through soccer. Joseph Balleweg sits down with the founder of Academia de Futbol Juvenil Amatense - or AFJA for short.

Steven Cruz is the founder of the nonprofit organization, AFJA. He spent his summers with his grandparents in Canton Los Amates, El Salvador where he noticed the immense differences between the United States and El Salvador. His experiences in Central America motivated him to create social change through soccer for others.

" I do remember at a very early age being impacted by the disparity that existed between the kids that I grew up with in LA, my family and friends that I grew up with in LA, and then I would go to El Salvador and see this huge disparity that kids my age were working in the corn field.”

For much of his youth, Cruz would visit El Salvador, where he learned to love soccer and connect with people over the sport.

“I liked baseball, so I played a lot of baseball or pop warner football. Just kind of like American sports. And then when I go down there, it’s like man, that isn’t around. People play soccer, people play futbol.”

As he grew older and graduated from USC, he never forgot about the connections he made and the privilege he had growing up in the United States.

“I’m one person’s decision away from being those kids. Right, because my mom immigrated from there during the civil war during these crazy times and I could very well be the kids working in the corn fields doing the same stuff.”

According to Cruz, in El Salvador many kids drop out before second grade because they must help their impoverished families by working labor jobs. He wanted to help the kids in Canton Los Amates and decided to create a gofundme page with a $500 goal.

“ROI is a term used in business school all the time. What’s your return on investment? How good is your ROI? Well, I would pitch people, return on impact. How much impact can we have on your investment?”

It took just 24 hours to reach that $500 goal. That’s when Cruz saw this goal could be so much more.

“It just took off from there. People were like “Hey I’ve got soccer gear. Like instead of just money, do you take soccer gear?” I’m like, we can do that.”

Almost instantly, Cruz had tons of gear.

“I had my garage and my closet and my mom’s closet and garage full of soccer gear, cones, jerseys. Anything you could think of, we just had in a one to two month turn around.”

Cruz decided to take this gear to the place he spent his summers in El Salvador. There, he asked the local school’s principal what recreational gear the school had.

“She’s like “you want to see what we have for sports equipment? OK. Hold on.” She goes into the back, comes out with this, I cant even call it a ball. It’s a sphere of thread that used to be a soccer ball at one point, but over the years, it is now just a round sphere that rolls and that’s what they have.”

When Cruz pulled out the tons of gear he brought over from Los Angeles, the principal was shocked.

“Pulled out the bags and said “this is some of the stuff I brought.” And she just gets kind of watery eyed and is like “Oh my god, and this is just for free?” I’m like yeah this is for you guys.”

This trip began Cruz’s mission to create opportunity for kids across Central America. Since 2017, AFJA has donated over 3,000 soccer balls and 2500 pairs of cleats. He has also opened five soccer academies across Central America. His first in Canton Los Amates, where he spent his summers as a child. Cruz continues to spread social change in Central America through the love of soccer.

For Annenberg Media, I’m Joseph Balleweg