Five years ago, Denis was living at a homeless shelter in North Vancouver, with little hope of a future. He had been on the streets for a year, after spending a troubled adolescence in the foster-care system.

“I didn't get the proper skill set to take care of myself,” he says.

As well as being homeless, Denis was struggling with drug addiction and mental-health issues. So when he was given the chance to play on The Salvation Army's street soccer team, the North Vancouver Shields, it was just the lifeline he needed.

“I was in a bad place in my life,” he says. “This soccer team saved me.”

Get the Ball Rolling
The name of the soccer team comes from The Salvation Army's iconic red shield. Charles MacGregor, who coaches and organizes the team, started the Shields nine years ago as a ministry of The Salvation Army's church in North Vancouver. The idea for the team came out of his desire to make a difference for youth living on the streets.

“I saw a bunch of street kids hanging out at a 7-Eleven one night and started thinking about how I could help out,” he recalls.

With the support of his pastor, Major Dave Grice, and the local John Braithwaite Community Centre, Charles began holding practices on Tuesday nights. He invited street kids to come and play—“no questions asked”—and had two boys come the first night.

“The next week, they brought nine friends. Before I knew it, I had more than 20 boys and girls coming every Tuesday night,” Charles shares.

After his first year of leading the team, Charles found out that a new soccer league for homeless and at-risk persons was in development. He began inviting people from a local homeless shelter to join the team, and when the Vancouver Street Soccer League (VSSL) officially launched in 2009, the North Vancouver Shields team was a founding member.

Fair Play
Since the team began, more than a hundred people have come through the program. Charles notes that many of those men and women have seen their lives turned around after playing with the Shields: 73 percent have made lifestyle changes and 94 percent have increased motivation to make improvements.

“The field is a better place of ministry than an office or church because some of these people won't go there,” says Charles. “But when we're on the field, if they want to talk or ask us anything, they feel safer there and freer to do that.”

“When I started playing with the Shields, everyone was friendly and receiving,” remembers Denis. “I knew I wouldn't be judged because everyone there was in the same boat, or understood what it's like to be on the streets.”

Over the past five years, Denis has made a number of good friends through the Shields. “We have a really good connection,” he says. “Even when there's not a set practice, there are about 10 of us who will go out and play by ourselves.”

Being a part of the team has been “life-changing,” he adds.

“It's given me the strength and skills to achieve what I want because it's given me a lot of confidence,” Denis continues. “If it wasn't for this team, I'd probably still be in the shelters and struggling with my mental health and addictions.”

Last August, Denis was selected by Street Soccer Canada to play for Team Canada at the Homeless World Cup in Poland. Though they didn't win the tournament, the team took what may be the best prize of all: the Fair Play Award.

Today, Denis is part of group of players from the North Vancouver Shields that visits local high schools and talks to students about the realities of homelessness and addiction. After the players share their personal stories, the students are given the opportunity to ask questions.

“They're eager to listen and learn, and a lot of them want to help,” Denis says.

“It's powerful,” adds Charles. “Some students might think 'they're just bums,' but once you talk to people and get to know them, you see them as real human beings.”

The Salvation Army - - Focused on the Ball Charles MacGregor (second from left) and the North Vancouver Shields proudly pose for the camera, with Lieutenant Bethany Dueck, North Vancouver's pastor, at right

Let the Games Begin
This past May 28-31, the North Vancouver Shields took their game to the next level and hosted the first-ever Canada Cup Street Soccer Tournament.

“I had a vision of people from all over Canada coming to North Vancouver for three days, to have fun, to focus on the ball and forget whatever problems they have,” says Charles, who spearheaded the planning of the event.

The tournament was a partnership between The Salvation Army, the VSSL and Street Soccer Canada, with help from the North Vancouver municipal government, the local Alliance Church and others. Fifteen teams were registered for the event, coming from as far away as Toronto and Halifax.

“It's the men and women that come here who make the tournament,” says Charles. “If they come and play and have fun, that's what really matters.”

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