Hooligans With Heart: Phoenix Rising’s Red Fury reaches out to refugees

Monica McPherson of the Red Fury passionately supports Phoenix Rising FC as well as the refugee kids at the North Phoenix Christian Soccer Club. (Photo courtesy Ashley Orellana)

PHOENIX – On a hot summer afternoon, bags full of soccer equipment, clothing and shoes covered the floor of Monica McPherson’s garage, awaiting the arrival of a special group of kids from the North Phoenix Christian Soccer Club.

Since January 2019, a Phoenix Rising FC supporters group called the Red Fury has helped provide thousands of dollars worth of soccer gear, food and clothing for refugee children and families connected to the NPCSC.

In August, McPherson, a founding member of the Red Fury, helped launch an online campaign called Hooligans With Heart – COVID Edition.

The campaign furthered the Red Fury and the NPCSC’s mission “to help refugee kids feel at home in the US by connecting them with soccer,” according to its website.

Hooligans With Heart combined an online auction with old-fashioned hand-to-hand collection methods to raise money and solicit donations of much-needed soccer equipment for the kids at the NPCSC.

Members of the Red Fury, Phoenix Rising players and the public at large chipped in to make the campaign a success.

One anonymous donor made a cash donation of $1,000.

Todd Ring, owner of Forever True Tattoo in Phoenix, contributed a $300 gift certificate.

Rising goalkeeper Eric Dick donated four pairs of autographed goalkeepers gloves for the auction.

“I reached out to Monica because Red Fury, she and everyone in this club (Phoenix Rising) have huge hearts,” Dick said. “They’re always looking for stuff like this, always looking for ways to impact the community, especially during these tough times.”

Refugees playing for the North Phoenix Christian Soccer Club are able to enjoy their sport thanks to fundraising campaigns like the Red Fury’s Hooligans With Heart. (File photo by Jojo Huckeba/Cronkite News)

Rising forward Junior Flemmings donated items that included footwear, a signed polo shirt and a signed travel jacket.

McPherson said donations poured in throughout the two-week long campaign.

At one point, trash bags full of donated items covered the floor of McPherson’s garage, waiting for volunteers from the NPCSC to retrieve them and distribute them to the grateful kids and their families.

An NPCSC volunteer eventually arrived with five boys from the club to collect some of the gear, leading to a poignant scene in McPherson’s garage.

The boys were brothers, refugees from the Republic of Burundi in Africa, whose father passed away in June.

McPherson had deliberately held aside the footwear donated by Flemmings, hoping that by chance the shoes would fit one of the boys.

After a few tries, McPherson said “it was almost like Cinderella” when the Rising star’s donated gear made a comfortable fit on one of the delighted youngster’s feet.

“They’re so grateful for anything, because they have nothing,” McPherson said.

Helping the underserved

Myles Grunewald has served as a volunteer coach and administrator for the North Phoenix Christian Soccer Club since shortly after its founding in 1975.

Grunewald began helping children in need decades ago, when he served in the US military in Korea and he and his wife adopted an orphaned infant Korean girl.

From 2005 to 2018, Grunewald said, he and his wife used nearly their entire 401(k) – about $400,000 – “just to keep the club going.”

Myles Grunewald, left, and Alondra Ruiz have served as volunteers at the North Phoenix Christian Soccer Club for more than 15 years. (Photo courtesy of Alondra Ruiz)

In addition to coaching the under-18 boys team, Grunewald can be found most days in one of the club’s three 15-passenger vans, “transporting children to practice, games, and church,” according to the NPCSC website.

Currently, the NPCSC directly funds and operates seven teams, boys and girls, ages 6 to 20 – close to 110 kids in total, nearly all of whom are refugees.

The current NPCSC registry includes players from 11 countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Myanmar, Nepal, Rwanda, Syria and Tanzania.

Many of the refugee families would face religious persecution, and even death, if they remained in their home countries.

Grunewald detailed the arduous journey many of the kids and their families endured prior to arriving in the Valley.

Long-standing provincial tension in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo led to armed conflict that destroyed the homes and livelihoods of some families.

Other families belong to religious minorities in their native lands and lived in fear of discrimination, persecution and even execution prior to fleeing their homes.

Some faced famine and simply fled in hope of improving their chances of survival.

In some cases, the United Nations stepped in to assist families in relocating to the United States – often a drawn-out, multistep process.

Some families were relocated to Canada, Mexico or Europe prior to moving to the US, and then stopped for a time in the city that served as their port – New York or Los Angeles.

Many of the families now supported by the NPCSC lived a nomadic life, sometimes for years with no fixed home, before arriving in Arizona.

Most arrived in Phoenix penniless and with no possessions other than what they carried on their backs.

Grunewald estimates that it takes about $40,000 a year to fund the NPCSC, all of which comes from community donations and contributions.

The NPCSC does not charge its players or their families anything to participate because most of them “are just trying to survive,” Grunewald said.

The club’s website states that it has operated as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization since 2019.

In its 45-year history, the NPCSC has welcomed refugees from over 30 countries, and the club has evolved to the point where it now offers players and their families much more than soccer training and opportunities to play competitive matches.

The NPCSC provides its players with transportation to and from games, all needed equipment, meals, family support, tutoring, assistance with education and career planning.

“We provide every single thing that the kids need, free of charge,” said Alondra Ruiz, the club’s registrar and administrator.

Ruiz has served as a volunteer for the NPCSC for more than 16 years. She’s also a liaison between Grunewald at the NPCSC and McPherson at the Red Fury.

“When Monica called about a year ago, she said, ‘What can I do, how can I help?’ And she started collecting clothes for the kids,” Ruiz said.

McPherson later informed Ruiz that she wanted to do a larger fundraiser for the NPCSC and the Hooligans With Heart campaign followed soon after.

Ruiz noted that the tough times associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in a significant reduction in funding for the club and called it “a blessing” that McPherson and the Red Fury’s Hooligans With Heart campaign have helped fill the recent void.

“Her heart is just amazing,” Ruiz said of McPherson. “She’s a beautiful person. I can’t do the soccer club without people like her.”

Success stories

Since its founding in 1975, the NPCSC has provided soccer training and equipment for hundreds of Phoenix-area refugee kids and, by extending support to their families, has influenced thousands in the local refugee community.

Success stories of former NPCSC players show the positive effect the club has had on the Valley’s refugee community over the years.

Grunewald spoke of former players who have built on their experience at the NPCSC, earned college degrees and enjoyed success as doctors, lawyers and professionals in the local community.

One former player, who currently studies medicine at the University of Arizona, intends to return to his birth country upon graduation – the same country he was forced to flee at an early age. “He wants to be a doctor to his people,” Grunewald said.

Years after playing at the NPCSC, several former players have returned to the club as coaches, administrators and volunteers.

As a professional soccer player, Dick recognizes the impact he and his Rising teammates can have on the lives of the current crop of soccer-loving kids at NPCSC, especially with help from Hooligans With Heart and similar programs.

“It’s part of our job to give back to society, to give back to those that love the game as much as us, but just maybe need a little bit of help,” Dick said. And for those kids with aspirations to play professional soccer, he added, “Anything I can do to help them get to that point, I’m going to do it.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Aaron Bradley James expects to graduate in spring 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. James enjoys covering baseball, football and auto racing and is working to improve his skills in Spanish and Portuguese.