Angel Tafolla has big dreams. The 13-year-old soccer player hopes to one day play for one of the world's most renowned teams: Futbol Club Barcelona.
And thanks to the 2-acre Rich May Field in East Palo Alto, he has ample space in his hometown to hone his skills in the sport that he loves.
"This space means a lot to me because there's kids here in East Palo Alto that go out to Sunnyvale or San Leandro just to play on a team that has a field with lights," said Angel, who's on the Ravenswood Junior Soccer Club's Manchester U14 team.
The club is one of many community groups that work with the Rich May Foundation to rent the Bay Road field, which stands between St. Francis of Assisi Church and Cesar Chavez Ravenswood Middle School. The field operates from 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Many users rent space starting in the mid-afternoon and in the evening, with their play aided by lights on six posts that border the space.
The full-sized field is named after Rich May, an East Palo Alto police officer who was killed in the line of duty in 2006. His family and friends banded together to turn the 2-acre plot into a synthetic turf field that opened in 2016 for children to practice and compete on in sports.
On a recent, brisk weekday evening, the field was bustling with activity. Each club team practiced on a dedicated section of the field, where they did drills around cones, ran laps and passed the ball to one another. The sound of kicks was heard from left to right as coaches led their respective teams, offering tips along the way. At one point, cheers erupted from a group of girls when they scored a goal.
The field doesn't just allow children to get physically active, it keeps them away from problems on the streets, said Horacio Barrera, president of the Ravenswood soccer club, which runs 20 teams. About 300 students ages 4 to 18 are on its roster and most live in East Palo Alto.
Angel's teammate, Joshua Barrera, 13, considers the field to be his second home, where he goes at least twice a week for practice. Soccer is a tie that binds the family: His older brothers are part of Santos U18, the club's highest-level team; his parents watch his games; and his uncle, Horacio Barrera, co-founded the club.
"I've gotten to really get to know this place and spend a lot of time here," Joshua said.
When the field was shut down during the early months of the pandemic, both Angel and Joshua faced soccer withdrawal since they were stuck at home and unable to practice.
"It was very stressful because I gained weight during COVID," said Angel, who called soccer his "getaway" from school.
Joshua had moments when he was ready to go to practice but then remembered it was canceled because of the pandemic.
"My body was really craving to go play soccer," Joshua said.
The field reopened at the end of August 2020 with safety protocols in place, including checks of players' temperatures, routine disinfecting of sports equipment and having everyone bring their own water bottles, according to Olympian Anne Warner Cribbs, who serves on the Rich May Foundation board.
Using a $5,000 grant awarded earlier this year by the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, the foundation supported two hourly staff members and purchased supplies to make sure the field was compliant with San Mateo County's COVID-19 protocols. Staff cleaned the restrooms on a more regular basis, and the foundation ensured enough masks and disinfectant were on hand.
The field proved to be a vital space for in-person learning hubs during the 2020-21 school year that were formed by the foundation, East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring (EPATT), Ravenswood City School District and St. Francis of Assisi Church.
"The actual field was a great source of activity, running and a playspace for a lot of our kids," EPATT Executive Director Dave Higaki said.
Split between the middle school campus and two portable classrooms behind the church, the hubs provided a dedicated setting for students to participate in remote, virtual classes. Portable nets were set up on the field so children could play tennis, which proved to be a popular activity.
Without the field, the only other available playspace would've been the parking lot, Higaki said.
The field is also the home turf of the East Palo Alto Razorhawks, a K-12 rugby program established in 2016. Sized and marked for rugby, the site is ideal for the Razorhawks, which plays for a bulk of the year and can store its often-heavy equipment on-site, club President Bryan Murphy said.
Soleil Narajo, 12, recalled the days before the Rich May Field: Practices on the grass at neighboring Costano School of the Arts would end in the dark, which caused the players to sometimes run into each other. The grass field had holes and plenty of bees.
"Last time we played, someone got stung in the foot," said Soleil, who is a member of the Ravenswood club's EPA Stars team.
Soleil's seen herself become more confident over the seven years she's played soccer with the club, making sure she's "giving 110%" of herself.
Jazlyn Gunn, Soleil's friend and fellow teammate, joined the EPA Stars three years ago.
Since returning to the field after the initial pandemic shutdown, she has noticed her skills improve and was proud of her team a few months ago when its first 11 vs. 11 game resulted in a 7-0 win.
"Just seeing my friends again is honestly the best thing ever. I think this field has brought us closer than we used to be."
The annual Holiday Fund charitable giving drive is in full swing, with a goal of raising $500,000 for local nonprofits serving children and families. For more information about the Holiday Fund and to donate, go to PaloAltoOnline.com/holiday_fund.