Coaching for Change

Zarefoss heading to Uganda to join Soccer Without Borders

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Lauren Zarefoss was born the year the United States national team won the inaugural Women’s World Cup in China. Eight years later, she became so enthralled by the 1999 U.S. team that won the title again, this time on home soil, that she began playing the sport.

Now, just weeks after watching arguably the most talented American team in history win a second straight championship and fourth overall in France, Zarefoss will embark upon her own overseas soccer-inspired journey.

A 2010 graduate of Woodland High, Zarefoss has spent the past two years as an assistant coach for girls basketball and boys soccer at Adairsville High. She will be leaving those positions, as well as her role as Title 1 paraprofessional at Hamilton Crossing Elementary, to join the non-profit group Soccer Without Borders for a nearly yearlong women’s sports corps fellowship in Uganda.

“The whole thing for them is equal opportunities for girls and women in third world countries,” Zarefoss said. “… Even though a lot of what I’ll be doing over there is coaching, so much more is mentoring and getting them to believe in themselves. …

“When I saw [the job posting] and read that, I thought, ‘This is kind of what I live for.’ It gives me the chance to work with children. It gives me the chance to play soccer and coach soccer. It gives me a chance to learn about a whole different community that a lot of people in a small town like Bartow don’t really get to do.”

It takes someone with a particular set of experiences and worldly outlook to even consider taking the type of job Zarefoss will be doing from August to June 2020 in Africa.

Zarefoss, who will turn 28 in October, spent the 1990s living in Florida. On Jan. 1, 2000, she moved with her family to Bartow County, when her mother, Melissa, took a job at Allatoona Elementary.

Even after her mother took a job as the principal at Adairsville Elementary, Zarefoss attended South Central Middle and Woodland High, where she played basketball and soccer. It was the latter that she continued with at the collegiate level, joining NAIA Columbia College (South Carolina) as a goalkeeper.

As impactful as her time was on the field for the Koalas, some of the moments that truly shaped Zarefoss came away from the pitch. Her love of coaching partly stems from her college coaches asking her and her teammates to scout potential future players to see how they thought they would fit with the team. And while her passion for traveling certainly runs in the family, doing so to promote the game of soccer can be traced back to Zarefoss’ senior season trip to Jamaica with her college teammates.

“I don’t mind being in different places, I enjoy it,” Zarefoss said. “Everybody that knows me and my sister knows we take the challenge of being able to broaden our horizons and get out there. It’s something that my mom has always taught us. She lived in Germany for a while. She left her family in Florida and went to Oklahoma to finish college there. … From her being able to do it when she was younger to now us — my sister, she worked on a cruise ship, she went around the world — she taught us to spread our wings. My mom’s whole side of the family, that’s what we’ve done. We don’t stay in one place. We don’t like to be complacent, especially when we’re younger and have the opportunities to go out and work wherever it is.

“I’m not worried about being over there. I’ll miss things over here, which will be difficult, but I know that what I’m doing in Uganda is so important that it balances it out.”

Despite spending just the past couple of years working with the Tigers, Zarefoss has clearly made an impact. The most shining example of her coaching is with the Adairsville goalies — on both the boys and girls teams. Zarefoss’ work helped make Havyn Isaac, Nic Jackson and Tyrek Bryant into some of Adairsville’s best players. Isaac will even be going off to college in the fall to play goalie for Georgia Military College.

Adairsville athletic director Meredith Barnhill admitted she was sad to learn Zarefoss wouldn’t be returning to the Tigers for the 2019-20 school year. When she learned the reason, though, Barnhill couldn’t help but be excited for Zarefoss.

“Obviously, we always hate to lose a coach, especially a coach who does the things that Lauren does for us,” Barnhill said. “But when I saw what she was getting to do, I thought, ‘What a tremendous opportunity for her.’ She’s going to get to travel a little bit, learn new cultures and be involved in a game she loves. I admire her, for while she’s young enough to do things like this, that she’s going to pick up and go. I think it’s fantastic.”

Barnhill said it speaks to Zarefoss’ personality that she would pursue an opportunity like Soccer Without Borders.

“First, I thing she’s courageous,” Barnhill said. “It takes a lot for somebody to pick up and move across the world to help kids she doesn’t know and has never even met. That also speaks to who she is as a person. She’s always willing to help. She works hard. She’s good with kids. It’s obvious that she loves soccer. I think they’re going to have a tremendous asset in Lauren.”

That message was echoed by both coaches Zarefoss has worked closely with over the past two years, including Adairsville boys soccer coach Jamey Laney, who said he’s actually known the Zarefoss family since she was in elementary school. Laney said Zarefoss has assisted on practically every team he’s coached since that time.

“I am super excited for Lauren, and I’m so proud of her accomplishments thus far in life,” Laney said. “I was honored to be a reference for her and support her landing this position. I can’t wait to see what this next chapter of her life brings. …

“Years ago, I was told, ‘You cannot grow, if you do not go.’ Of course, I will miss her, but I know that she will do amazing things and will make memories to last a lifetime. I’m praying for her success and safety. I believe she will be a blessing to the communities In which she is assigned to.”

Said Adarisville head girls basketball coach Michael Roberson, “She is passionate about soccer, loves people and has a servant’s heart. I’m confident she will do a great job.”

At the very least, Zarefoss should be as prepared as possible for this opportunity. The application and interview process alone took months to complete.

After learning about the fellowship over winter break, Zarefoss applied immediately, and despite being surrounded by family in Florida, she chose not to disclose her decision. Upon hearing back from a human resources representative, Zarefoss decided to let her family in the loop.

Her first phone interview with the HR rep came during soccer season, as Zarefoss sat in her car, waiting to depart for a road game. The next phone interview brought in two individuals from Women Win, a cohort organization that works alongside Soccer Without Borders in Uganda's capital city of Kampala. Two weeks and zero contacts later, Zarefoss reached out to check about her status. She was told, matter of factly, the decision would be made in a few days.

When Zarefoss finally received email confirmation that she had been selected, she reached out to those closest to her. The email had stated Zarefoss had a few days to make a decision, but she didn’t need them. Having attempted to secure a similar job in the past, Zarefoss accepted without hesitation.

“I was ecstatic,” she said. “I had tried to do, with a different organization, something like this before, and it fell through right at the final interview. That was kind of heartbreaking.”

For as privileged as Zarefoss knows her life has been, she’s suffered some professional setbacks. Following graduation from Columbia College, she failed to find the type of job she wanted, instead heading to Texas to work for a boarding school for troubled teens. She later attended graduate school in Connecticut before returning to Georgia, where she began coaching and substitute teaching in the Bartow County School System.

Zarefoss said she’s grown unsure about her career plans. It’s possible her upcoming involvement in Soccer Without Borders will shape her future.

“I realized how much I love coaching just from the experiences I’ve gotten to do,” Zarefoss said. “You never know. My degrees are in journalism and broadcast, so I always thought about getting with a team and being able to do that, which I would still love to do. I’ve thought about being with a college team and being the sports information director or being a social media director for a college or a team. Those are things that I look forward to, but I also realize the possibility of coaching, whether I come back and coach at a high school or coach at college, be a keeper coach and work my way up. There’s still an array of what I can do. Or I can work for a non-profit organization like Soccer Without Borders. …

“I still have a few different areas that I’m like, ‘Any of these will work.’ I’m not making it narrow. I started off trying to come out of college very narrow with what I wanted to do, and it didn’t happen. It can put a damper on your career aspirations. Once I broadened my horizons — and I’ve done a few different things — it gets you to places. This is just another notch on the belt that will hopefully help on the next steps in life.”

Since being selected for the job late in the school year, Zarefoss has been preparing for the life-changing experience. There’s been shots and pills. There’s been visa applications. There’s been discussions with a Soccer Without Borders fellow who recently returned to the U.S. and talks with a Women Win employee whom Zarefoss will work with after arriving in Uganda, which lists English and Swahili as its official languages.

This conversations have eased Zarefoss into what to expect, as will a soccer camp she will help conduct with Soccer Without Borders in Boston prior to flying across the Atlantic Ocean. Essentially, her days in Africa will consist of three roles — coaching, mentoring and office duties, which include trying to gain community support.

The motto for Soccer Without Borders is “Playing for Change,” and Zarefoss is truly taking that to heart. As she works with the youth, the hope is to mold them into leaders who can then mentor the next generation.

“It’s getting kids to have a passion, getting them to grow within themselves and getting them to be open to everything,” Zarefoss said. “... The growth, we use it through sport, but it’s really the growth as a human being. Everybody comes from a different culture. We have to hear everybody. We can’t just say, ‘This is our culture. This is what we do.’ That’s not how the world works. Nobody comes from the same culture, not even in the United States, we’re a melting pot.

“Whether they come over here and you teach them for a camp or you go to other countries, It’s for growth, having an open mind, listening to everybody’s voice is what they’re working towards. I think that equality on all levels is something to strive for, and the way that they’re doing it is through their passion, country’s passions and my passion, which led me to do it.”

With Zarefoss’ position specifically designed to help promote equality, Wednesdays will be a day the local girls are taught the life skills they need to become self-sufficient.

“It’s not only to help them with soccer,” Zarefoss said. “It’s to teach them about their hygiene, their health, because they don’t get that over there. The help we can give them every Wednesday is going to be fantastic, because the more they learn, then they can spread it to the people in their community.“

While she’s certainly looking forward to imparting soccer wisdom and providing guidance, Zarefoss expects the knowledge she gains will dwarf anything she can pass along to the children of Uganda.

“You grow as a person, because truthfully, they’re going to teach you way more than you could ever teach them,” Zarefoss said. “Kids are so open to everything, whereas, adults are usually more narrow-minded. You go into a different culture, you work with children and your eyes are opened to a lot more things. The way that we’re doing it is through soccer.”

As someone who fell in love with the game while watching the likes of Mia Hamm star in the U.S. jersey, Zarefoss understands the impact soccer can have on a person. From the ability to provide a better life for oneself — through a college scholarship, a professional career or a spot on a national team — to simply teaching the value of camaraderie, leadership and hard work.

Zarefoss watched intently as the latest (and perhaps greatest) iteration of the U.S. women's national team showcased those attributes during their recent unbeaten run to the World Cup title. It’s only raised Zarefoss' level of enthusiasm ahead of her own adventure.

“I went a little nuts, I’ll admit it,” Zarefoss said of seeing the U.S. defeat the Netherlands in the finals. “I’m glad that I was in my house, where nobody could see me. That’s why I like watching it at home. I’ve watched every World Cup since ’99. … I’ve either played or coached almost my entire life, so [soccer] has just had one of the biggest impacts on me.”

She added, “The passion got me going, especially because it’s now and I’m getting ready to leave in a couple of weeks. I was like, ‘I’m so ready to go.’ I want to spread the joy and love that people have for the game.”