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Scoring Goals for Good

Alum Earns ESPN Award for Coaching, Mentoring Refugee Youth

By Annie Dankelson

Billie Jean King, award winners onstage at ESPN’s seventh annual Sports Humanitarian Awards

Photos by ESPN Images

Holly Wilson ’21 (second from left) stands onstage with the five other winners of the Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Award and the award’s namesake (center) at ESPN’s seventh annual Sports Humanitarian Awards, held at The Rooftop at Pier 17 in New York City. Wilson was recognized for her work coaching and mentoring refugee youth in the D.C. area through L.A.C.E.S. (below).

When Holly Wilson ’21 started coaching a teenage refugee from Afghanistan named Basir at a local soccer camp in Spring 2019, he was new to the sport and knew little English. By the end of the year, he had stepped up as an assistant coach himself and spoken in front of nearly 100 donors at the program’s annual benefit dinner.

Holly Wilson ’21 at the Sports Humanitarian AwardsFor Wilson, a volunteer for L.A.C.E.S. (Life And Change Experienced thru Sports), that progression embodies the mission of the nonprofit, which uses athletics to mentor at-risk and refugee youth and foster leadership development. This month, the Terp’s work with the organization was recognized at ESPN’s seventh annual Sports Humanitarian Awards in New York City, where she and five peers from other organizations earned the Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Award for leveraging sport as a catalyst for positive change. The awards show will air at 2 p.m. Saturday on ABC.

“I felt so overwhelmed with joy, because I’m bringing together sports and inspiration to help these children, and then they’re also helping me,” Wilson said. “I’ve gained so many leadership skills and cultural awareness and (learned) how to be part of a nonprofit.”

L.A.C.E.S., headquartered in Takoma Park, Md., was founded in 2007 in Liberia for children in the country, which had suffered through 14 years of civil war. In 2016, the nonprofit launched a refugee program in the Greater Washington, D.C. area, running a soccer camp for kids from 14 countries to promote social integration, teamwork and physical well-being. 

Those causes lined up with Wilson’s interests and expertise: She’s played soccer since was 4, and upon hearing about L.A.C.E.S. her sophomore year through a UMD club team, the public health science major jumped at the chance to help the Prince George’s County community.

After L.A.C.E.S. reaches out to refugee parents through their resettlement agency, Wilson and other volunteers drive interested kids, usually ages 7-15, from their College Park-area apartments to soccer fields or facilities for practice. Each session has a theme, such as self-esteem, resilience, or respect, and after running through drills and scrimmaging, participants reconvene to go over what they learned.

“They speak different languages, they have different cultures, they’re coming from persecution and violence and anger, (but) we all connect on that soccer aspect,” Wilson said.

Holly Wilson ’21 coaches at L.A.C.E.S. soccer eventWhen the pandemic hit in March 2020, the game plan had to be adjusted, but the outreach continued. Besides helping to post weekly health and fitness circuits to allow kids to brush up on their soccer skills at home, Wilson started virtual one-on-one practices until in-person activities could safely resume. In June, she organized the first local L.A.C.E.S. event since the shutdown: a citywide soccer festival in D.C. that brought together refugee and non-refugee children alike.

“She embodies the best of what sport can mean,” Seren Fryatt, L.A.C.E.S founder and executive director, said in a news release, “and she is making a difference both on the field and off.”

Earning recognition for that work at ESPN’s Sports Humanitarian Awards was “a dream,” said Wilson, who knew when she applied she’d be up against an impressive pool of peers. She relished meeting her award’s namesake, tennis legend and social justice advocate Billie Jean King, as well as ceremony host Taye Diggs, UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou and dozens of other influential athletes and leaders.

Now, as she applies to schools to become a physician’s associate and racks up clinical hours and experience at a pediatric hospital and urgent care center, she’s continuing her work with L.A.C.E.S. to spread its message further.

“Our main goal is to empower this youth to become the best version of themselves,” Wilson said. “I want to grow with (the L.A.C.E.S.) leadership, grow with the program, help with expansion and be their ambassador.”

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