The life-changing implications of soccer cannot be denied.
Whether it is a small thing, like a refreshing pick-up session, to watching your favorite rivalry play out, or the friendships that started from grade-school travel soccer and beyond, the game’s impact – as with sports in general – is ubiquitous.
The difference from other sports is, soccer is a global game, and that’s a key factor for Jeremy Hollon, Crew SC’s 2019 Community MVP and nominee for the 2019 MLS WORKS Community MVP Grand Prize.
Hollon, who serves as the Community Connectors Coordinator at Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) in Columbus, is dedicated to facilitating “the power of one,” as he put it, and naturally, soccer plays a big role.
“Everyone that I have met, soccer is somehow interwoven into their lives,” Hollon said on soccer’s ability to bring people from different cultures together. “It is either they play it, they love it, or it is the easiest way for a group of people to come together and get to know each other.”
The mission of CRIS is to serve as a resettlement agency for Columbus' refugee and immigrant population. For Hollon, who runs the youth programming and works with middle-school-aged students through recent-graduates, mentorship is an important piece of the agency’s goals. From working on language-barrier issues to academics, it is important to make Columbus feel like the home that it is.
“We work on a lot of goals, from working on English to academic goals to employment, but also a big component is just feeling like Columbus welcomes you, to feel like this is your city,” Hollon said. “For most of our kids, it is a new city, it is a new state, it is a new country, so everything is different, culture, cuisine, climate. A big part is just finding something that is familiar or finding something that just makes you feel like you belong. The Crew has kind of been our biggest beacon for that.”
As a “Community Connector” at CRIS, the notion of being a public servant is engrained in his title, and as a native Ohioan, Hollon’s goal of helping his community takes a local – and personal – turn.
“In college, I was a Sociology-Anthropology Studies major, so I have always wanted to help people. I think it is the highest thing you can do as a public servant,” Hollon said. “That is at the top of the pyramid of things you can do. I think we should always be giving back. I am from Lima. I am a proud Ohioan so I knew once I came back from college, I knew that I wanted to move the needle forward.”
As a non-profit, the “How-Factor” in fulfilling CRIS’s mission can be challenging, as the agency’s resources largely depend on grants and volunteering, but the “Why-Factor” is as innate and clean-cut as one can imagine.
“For me the ‘why’ is to feel like a human,” Hollon said on the purpose of CRIS’s mission.
“Unfortunately, there is some kind of narrative going around that the population that we serve should not be here or maybe are not as welcomed. There is just some confusion about why people are here. For me, everyone deserves to be here. Everyone deserves to feel like they belong somewhere and even if it is through a mentor, playing soccer, or just graduating and feeling like you are part of the fabric of this country and our city. That is the ‘why’ for me.”
Enter Columbus Crew SC’s role, and more broadly, the family-type environment soccer facilitates.
“When you are playing soccer, you forget you are from this district or that district. You are just having conversations,” Hollon said. “You don’t need to know everything about someone to play this game with them.”
As inclusive as the game itself is, the Crew’s diversity is also a welcoming factor, Hollon said, as it adds another dimension for refugees and immigrants to relate to.
“The Crew is incredibly diverse in terms of players, so with that, kids can actually see themselves in them,” Hollon said. “South American players see South American players, African players see African players. That also develops a few ‘This is my team. This is my city.’”
As a finalist for the MLS WORKS Community MVP Grand Prize, the award at stake includes $25,000 towards a charity of the winner's choice, which Hollon said would make up nearly a quarter of CRIS’s yearly budget.
“We are a non-profit, so we are pretty volunteer-based and grant-based,” Hollon said. “We need any kind of fiscal help that we can get, which is why this award is very appealing to us because this would basically be a quarter of our budget we could win just off of voting, so that would be pretty phenomenal.”
The impact would be significant for CRIS, as Hollon alluded, and the nature of it could not be more fitting, as soccer is an embodiment of CRIS’s mission – to be inclusive, constructive, fun, and of course, a healthy release.
“It is not an ‘us versus them.’ This is we. Soccer for us is fun but it can also be therapeutic too.”
Fans can vote for Hollon on MLS WORKS’ website or through Twitter. Voting ends at 2 p.m. ET on July 31, prior to the MLS All-Star Game, which kicks off later that evening at 8 p.m. ET from Exploria Stadium in Orlando, Fla.