The high school boys playing soccer on a recent Saturday at the Sportsplex were a blur. They moved quickly from one end of the small indoor field to another, displaying skills they developed in their home countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Somalia — to name a few.
Many of the students were new to Bellingham this school year. One was separated from his father due to a war back home. Several came from refugee camps in Kenya, Uganda or Djibouti.
Whenever the game action slowed down, you could see that many of the players wore new, brightly colored cleats. The shoes were donated in November by Nick Piro and his colleagues at Bellwether Real Estate in Bellingham.
“It’s a wonderful thing, to be able to help,” Piro said when he visited the students on Jan. 27 at the Sportsplex.
“You hear incredible stories, of these kids fleeing their countries to be here, the 15-year-old who works two jobs. It’s the least I can do,” Piro said.
Piro has been supporting schools since he started working in real estate, about two years ago. The 2006 Squalicum High School grad has organized holiday drives, and he provided 200 backpacks full of school supplies to students across Whatcom County at the start of this school year. This fall, Piro asked Kathe Koruga, ELL family advocate for the Bellingham schools, to call him if she thought he could be of some help to the school district’s family engagement team.
Koruga approached Piro with the idea of donating the soccer gear.
“They all wanted to play soccer, but a lot of them didn’t have shoes,” Koruga said.
Piro and his colleagues responded with 17 sets of cleats, socks, and shin guards for ELL students from all three high schools: Bellingham, Sehome and Squalicum.
“I’m just grateful Kathe reached out and had something we could collaborate on,” Piro said.
The soccer match on Jan. 27 was originally going to be an opportunity for the boys who received the shoes to play together and get to know each other. But with the support of Sehome High School ELL Specialist Becky Donnino, this group and other ELL and foreign-born students formed a team called Bellingham International that now plays in a local league.
Jared Ibarra, a member of the family engagement team, is recently graduated from Western Washington University and was able to match the high school boys’ energy on the soccer field that day.
“What better way to build community,” Ibarra said, “than through a sport that everyone loves?”
Ibarra pointed out that Piro’s donation was The Bellingham Promise in action.
Students from other cultures who are still learning English can feel “rather isolated,” Ibarra said. Piro and his colleagues helped create a soccer team among students who have a lot in common but who otherwise might not have had the opportunity to meet each other.
“The Bellingham Promise says every student should be loved,” Ibarra said. “If you show them love like this, the hope is they fulfill their academic goals and become leaders in the schools.”
Piro’s generosity was recognized by his peers. He received the Community Service Award in January at the Whatcom County Association of Realtors‘ annual Installation and Awards Banquet.
After all he has been able to give, Piro said the students might not realize they give him even more in return:
“The gratitude they show — it’s a special group of boys that just appreciate everything.”
Piro’s next project is a hygiene drive for this spring, to make sure students have the toothpaste, shampoo, laundry soap and other items they need during summer break. More information on the spring hygiene drive will be available as the date approaches.
Photos: (1) Nick Piro poses with students at the Sportsplex on Jan. 27. (2) Students, some of whom received donations of soccer shoes and other equipment from Piro, pose during a break in a soccer scrimmage at the Sportsplex. (3), Piro and fellow Bellwether Real Estate agent Solomon Gill pose with students at Sehome High School in November, on the day the soccer shoes were donated.