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Every Tuesday and Thursday night, the Miramichi United Soccer Club’s fields become a gathering place for residents and visitors alike in the small New Brunswick town.

Out on the field, an Indigenous child from a nearby reserve passes the ball to their teammate, who happens to have recently escaped Syria with their family. Children from the town’s francophone community play alongside their new friends – children who have come to Canada after fleeing the war in Ukraine.

Miramichi United Soccer Club, NB

For many families in Miramichi, the club’s registration fee – which includes a uniform, soccer ball, and field time twice a week – is unaffordable.  This is especially for families with more than one child who wants to play soccer.

But the reason they can be here this summer, playing together, is all thanks to the Canadian Parks and Recreation Association’s Reaching Each and Every One: A Community Sport Intervention program. This program, which was funded by Sport Canada’s Community Sport for All Initiative, seeks to remove barriers and increase sport participation rates for equity deserving groups across Canada.

“I could talk for hours about what this grant means for the community,” says Zayd Cajee, president of the Miramichi United Soccer Club. “The fact that we could do this, and provide so much to the community for free, is absolutely incredible.”

The club’s project, Beautiful Communities through the Beautiful Game, covered registration fees for people who don’t have the financial means to register their kids in soccer – particularly Syrian and Ukrainian refugees, residents in nearby Indigenous communities, and others who face financial barriers to sports.

“Cost is the biggest barrier. If you cannot afford to play sports in Miramichi, you cannot afford to play sports generally in this province,” Cajee says, adding that it was “mind-blowing” to learn how many people in the community face cost barriers to sports. “We were very lucky to get the grant, and we used every penny that we could to cover registration costs for people.”

Wes Coxe, a father of three, says the grant made a significant impact on his family. The former business owner lost everything because of the COVID-19 pandemic – including his house, and his Calgary-based bakery business.

During the pandemic, Coxe’s family moved to Miramichi, where they had extended family for support, and could afford to live. However, there wasn’t much room in the budget for extra-curricular activities like soccer.

When he heard about the Beautiful Communities through the Beautiful Game project, Coxe immediately signed up his eight-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter.

“It was such a blessing. They’ve been through so much, and they’ve had a hard time adjusting to the move here,” Coxe says. “Now, they’ve been able to meet new kids and exercise, and allow some of that stress to naturally remove itself in a positive way. Its something they look forward to twice a week, it gets them out of the house, and gets them active.”

Cajee agrees that the program has had significant impacts on children’s physical health, but also, their mental health. Many of the players face unique circumstances that impact their mental health, he says, and the ability to play soccer with other kids provides them with a healthy outlet.

“With this funding, we definitely got kids who otherwise would not have been here, and would have been stuck at home in tough and stressful situations,” he says. “I get emails and messages from parents and grandparents about the type of homes they come from, how soccer is their child’s only outlet, and how happy and excited they are to have the chance to play. This is not just a physical health initiative – it is also a mental health initiative.”