Local soccer team rescues women from addiction, homelessness
It’s a Sunday afternoon, and Angelina Lowney is sitting, sweating in the bleachers next to a soccer field at the Mather Sports Complex. Just a few hundred yards away stands the building in which three years ago, the 37-year-old mother of five decided to abandon her meth habit and clean up once and for all.
Her younger children chase one another across the field as she rests, exhausted from an afternoon of spirited practice.
“For me, joining the team was about being able to show [my children] something different, and being accountable,” she says. “I was addicted to methamphetamines. But I also am addicted to street life. Gangs, drugs, money. All that kind of stuff.”
Today, she is clean.
Lowney plays for the Sacramento Lady Salamanders, one of six street-soccer teams across the nation geared toward helping homeless women transform their lives. Here in Sacramento, the program is taking on a style and energy all its own. It has grown into an outfit dedicated to serving women as they recover from both homeless situations and addiction, teaching them to respect and care for each other while also providing a safe haven and outlet for their children.
The Lady Salamanders Initiative functions as part of Street Soccer USA, a program started in North Carolina in 2004. Over time, founder Lawrence Cann has expanded his program to 20 cities across the country, with the Sacramento Mohawks team coming to town in 2009.
But as SSUSA grew and men’s participation expanded, volunteers found women’s participation in decline. Sacramento was no exception.
“It started to expose more and more that these women needed their own space, a safe place,” says Sacramento Lady Salamanders’ coach Tiffany Fraser. Many of the women coming to practice, Fraser says, often carried several children in tow, and others were formerly mired in abusive relationships.
With this in mind, Fraser and the team’s other coach, Lisa Wrightsman, started the women’s-only offshoot of the city’s Mohawks team two years ago, and last December, they officially took up the name of Sacramento Lady Salamanders.
Sacramento’s women’s street-soccer team is unique. It is the only team of its kind in the nation solely consisting of drug- and alcohol-free players. A majority of recruitment takes place at local rehabilitation centers and transitional-living communities.
In fact, before Wrightsman began coaching for the Lady Salamanders, she too was addicted to meth. In the early 2000s, she enjoyed a career as a forward for Sacramento State University’s women’s soccer team and worked her way into the semi-pros before addiction took over, and things began to devolve.
“It took about five years before I’d leveled out everything I had in my life,” says Wrightsman. “Opportunities I’d had, gone to nothing.”
It was a time marred with bad decisions and broken bonds. Two DUIs. Relationships tested. She was kicked out of her best friend’s wedding.
Finally, sitting in a Sacramento jail cell three years ago, Wrightsman decided she had to either turn things around or die. She entered a rehabilitation program, and after successfully completing treatment, moved into the Mather Community Campus transitional-living program, where she learned about the Mohawks.
At the time, Wrightsman says, she associated her addiction and bad choices with soccer, and was reluctant to join the team. Still, she decided to give it one more shot.
She thrived. That year, Wrightsman played in the Street Soccer USA Cup in New York City, and then represented the United States in the 2010 Homeless World Cup in Brazil.
“Ultimately,” she says, “it just reminded me that I loved something before I’d gotten involved in drugs.”
Wrightsman soon met Fraser, another former Sac State player, at a local intramural soccer league. She invited her to come check out the program, and after just one practice, Fraser was hooked.
In 2011, they coached the United States’ women’s team in the Homeless World Cup in Paris. When their players started getting down because they weren’t winning, the two coaches called a meeting in a park, making sure that the beauty of Paris was visible to the team.
“Do you know what’s really going on here?” Fraser asked. “One girl was shooting up in a closet six months earlier, and now she’s sitting in front of the Eiffel Tower.”
Today, the team consists of a core group of 10 women who regularly attend and take part in the SSUSA curriculum, which includes focusing on one particular life skill each practice, and also a book club on Thursdays. The team regularly hosts one or two additional women, invited by teammates to come down and try the program out.
The Salamanders hold a ladies-only practice on Tuesday nights, as well as an open practice on Sunday afternoons, which almost always includes members of the Mohawks men’s team, as well as any number of the women’s 30 or so children.
They are currently preparing to play other homeless women’s street-soccer teams in the West Coast Cup next June in San Francisco. After that, they hope to raise enough funds to bring the team to New York City and compete in the national finals, held in Times Square. They also plan to send one or two players to represent the United States in the Homeless World Cup, held this year in Poland.
Lowney refers to life on the streets for women as “degrading.”
“Now, I’ve learned to develop these relationships with these women and to appreciate them. Not try to beat them up or degrade them. I love them. It’s different.”
Lowney, also president of the Serna Village transitional-living community, was hospitalized last month due to complications associated with a lung condition, developed from smoking cigarettes and meth. And while her teammates came to the hospital with a soccer ball and held practice with her there, running through the hallways, still hooked up to the IV, Lowney says she was determined to get back on the field and be with her team on the day they tried out the new inflatable court.
“I don’t have time to lay around and be sick,” she says.
In the end, coach Wrightsman says, it’s about self-worth. “A lot of it is about having a purpose,” she says, “having something to give to somebody else.
“Also, sports are just fun.”