"About a third of the (East Palo Alto) population is under 18, and really, there is nothing else for them. It's either this or video games," Pekary said. "The kids are waiting for someone to get them organized. We have a captive audience."
Pekary, a handful of volunteers and 30 coaches were able to organize a successful kick-off event Saturday. For the entire day, more than 40 teams of kids aged 4 to 18 played dozens of games -- each opening with a prayer.
Because the City of East Palo Alto and the Ravenswood City School District recently faced significant cutbacks to recreational and after-school programs respectively, Pekary wanted to fill the gap and decided to start the faith-based RYAA, which is currently waiting for its nonprofit status to be cleared.
If all goes well with the first soccer season, which will run through November, Pekary plans to start leagues for basketball, baseball, flag football, volleyball and indoor soccer.
Pekary and five friends are currently operating RYAA out of their own pockets. He said it will cost about $80,000 to run the current soccer season, and they have so far raised about $30,000 in private donations. He thinks it will cost about $300,000 a year to run RYAA at full speed with all sports.
It sounds like a difficult undertaking, but Pekary said the kids in East Palo Alto deserve an economical option for athletics.
"We're interested in having soccer be an avenue to build up families, build up the community, and build up the kids," Pekary said. "Whether they turn out to be great soccer players really isn't that important to us."
The inaugural RYAA soccer season cost each player $40, which helps pay for uniforms, insurance, equipment and the $5 per player fee the Ravenswood district charges for field use.
Pekary said comparable programs run through cities can cost $90 to $150, which many kids in East Palo Alto cannot afford. A competitive soccer league can cost more than $1,000.
Twenty-five percent of RYAA's players are in a work-to-play program. Kids who cannot afford the $40 can work off their membership through various jobs, including setting up for games and cleaning up afterward. Some of the older teenagers also learn to referee, which could lead to paying gigs.
Other players have recruited their fathers and uncles to coach and referee in exchange for membership dues.
"We want to give them an option without just giving it away," Pekary said.
For the past five years, Pekary was the commissioner for the American Youth Soccer Association (AYSO) in East Palo Alto. Two years ago, he realized the AYSO model does not work in his community.
Under its guidelines, AYSO must be run by all volunteers. Pekary said there are not enough volunteers in East Palo Alto, as most parents have to work full-time or at two jobs and many families leave after a few years because of skyrocketing housing prices.
In 2004, 30 percent of Pekary's AYSO coaches left.
"Phone numbers went dead," he said.
The same thing happened in 2005.
Pekary hopes RYAA can someday soon be an organization in which coaches and referees will be paid.
Besides playing the game, Pekary said RYAA is a way for adults to develop relationships with the community's youth. Down the road, Pekary would like to have a full-time counselor on staff to work with kids who seem to be struggling off the field.
"I've lived in East Palo Alto for 15 years. Part of the reason I'm doing this is because I want to see the kids who are really struggling get those extra resources," he said.
For more information on the Ravenswood Youth Athletic Association, call 331-0382 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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