Since the launch of the mini-pitch initiative in 2015, the U.S. Soccer Foundation has installed more than 160 Safe Places to Play in underserved communities across the United States. Mini-pitches are small, acrylic soccer courts perfect for areas where quality play spaces are at a premium. These mini-pitches restore abandoned parking lots, tennis courts, and otherwise underutilized hard-surface spaces and transform them into safe community hubs.
On Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018, Wilkes Elementary School in Portland, Oregon opened their brand new mini-pitch thanks to a charitable donation from the W.J. Silverstein Family Trust, a Portland-based philanthropic family foundation. This is the twelfth mini-pitch in the Portland area: seven are in the city of Portland, two in Gresham, two in Forest Grove, and one in Wood Village. As he observed children trying out their skills and enjoying themselves, this new space meant something special for one community member in particular.
Ricardo “Ricki” Ruiz has lived his entire life in Gresham, a city 16 miles east of Portland. He began working in the local government in 2012 after graduating high school. Since then, Ricki has held various positions in Gresham and currently serves as a board liaison for the Reynolds School District.
In recent years, Ricki has noticed an increased interest in soccer amongst the Gresham community despite a lack of quality play spaces to meet this demand. Ricki views this passion for soccer as something deeply engrained in his community. “Soccer has been a sport that a vast majority of our population, which is predominately Latino, grows up knowing and learning,” according to Ricki. He recalls seeing children play soccer in parking lots, using their backpacks as goals and an old soccer ball that has been torn up from years of use. In addition, he has witnessed parents across the community seek affordable ways for their children to play soccer as the community’s passion for the game grows.
As a soccer player himself and active community member, Ricki made initial connections between the U.S. Soccer Foundation and the City of Gresham about mini-pitches at East Rockwood Park and Aspen Highlands Park.
In the summer of 2018, Ricki identified Wilkes Elementary – a school with more than 460 students – as another site where a new soccer space could make a positive impact in the community. As a board liaison, Ricki made the introduction between the Reynolds School District and the U.S. Soccer Foundation, and also helped facilitate the actual installation of the mini-pitch. “I kind of had to wear both hats as a city employee and a Reynolds board member, to make this mini-pitch come to reality,” said Ricki.
In addition to being available for school and community use, local sports-based youth development organization Active Children Portland runs the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s Soccer for Success programming at the Wilkes Elementary mini-pitch. Soccer for Success, offered free to participants, is an after-school program that connects children with coach-mentors from whom they learn critical life skills and healthy habits. Ricki highlights the impact quality programming can have on mini-pitches by saying, “Building a mini-pitch and having ongoing programming that kids and families can be part of keeps these mini-pitches alive.”
One of Ricki’s favorite “mini-pitch moments” is observing the bonds made by children who come from all over the world. Representing the diversity of the Gresham community, one will often find children with a variety of cultural backgrounds at the Wilkes pitch. “Although they often arrive at the mini-pitches speaking different languages, they’re able to communicate through the ‘soccer language.’” Through this universal language, children leave with memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.
Interested in bringing a mini-pitch to your community? Learn more about mini-pitches – including what makes a good site and how to suggest a location – on our website, or contact Safe Places to Play Director Alex Bard at firstname.lastname@example.org.