To Lisa Wrightsman soccer is more than speed, teamwork, fancy footwork and the thrill of competition, it is a healing balm that delivered her from the throes of addiction.
In her soccer career – playing for the Sacramento State Hornets from 1999-2002 – she scored the second-highest number of goals out of any player in the team’s history. In 2009, Lisa endured homelessness and jail time all due to an addiction born out of emotional trauma.
When she was recruited to play Street Soccer USA by her case manager at Mather Community Campus, Lisa found her footing to conquer her addiction and a calling to find the stability and strength to help others.
Street Soccer USA is a nationwide soccer program that engages people who are homeless, in recovery and who have disabilities in quick four on four games in a hockey-rink sized field.
The experience gave Lisa a fresh take on the sport.
“As a competitive athlete this was the first time that I really paid attention to the difference between someone’s skill level with soccer versus how important being part of the game was to them,” she said.
Every year, eight women, eight men and nine boys and nine girls are chosen to play for the U.S. national team at the Homeless World Cup – a seven-week tournament pitting 50 teams representing 50 countries against one another. Players are chosen based on leadership skills, achievements on the field and ability.
Lisa attended the Homeless World Cup in Rio de Janero, Brazil in 2010 – an experience that inspired her to found the Lady Salamanders in 2011 – Sacramento’s first women’s street soccer team.
“So our team was like not good,” she said. “I was a soccer player, but a lot of the women on our team were not really as athletic – you know, they’ve been dealing with chronic homelessness their whole lives so there were a lot of issues. Because we were so bad, we actually started to become closer.”
“The fact that they loved soccer was the only thing motivating them to make other changes in their lives that have taken their whole lives to look at,” she said.
“We had a girl playing for our team who had a schizophrenic breakdown while she was there,” Lisa said. “Nobody knew what was happening – it just appeared that she didn’t like anybody and the woman who was our coach and counselor explained to us what could make it easier for her. We didn’t want her to go home because she was one of our better players. It was really interesting – when she played, she was fine. When she wasn’t playing the voices came back and she was really distracted and overwhelmed and stressed out. So we were like all right, if that’s what she needs to stay here – why don’t we play soccer all day. When we were on the field everybody made the effort to give her space without taking it personal. Watching the women come together was the most impactful thing that I had seen in a long time – I was like wow, that’s really valuable and we don’t have to be winning to come together. So that is what we tried to create the most with our program – we may not win – but, the women are going to have relationships that will help them be successful in life and that is what is going to matter.”
Now, Lisa is a board member at Wellspring Women’s Center and a student services administrator at Asher College.
“When I went through the street soccer program, we didn’t have a women’s program,” Lisa said. “We really realized that women needed a space to bond with each other.”
“And then we just found it to be really effective,” she said. “A lot of the women who have stayed in the program haven’t really gone back because they’ve had a long enough time to get used to the idea of having a healthy life and learn how to function and get through some of the hardships of it.”
The Lady Salamanders play at Serna Village every Tuesday at 7pm and Mather Sports Complex every Sunday at 7 pm. They play each other, other soccer enthusiasts in the community and sometimes, the Sacramento State soccer team.
Along with the homeless world cup, there too is a national world cup. This year’s is taking place in San Francisco where homeless players from 16 different cities including Sacramento will come together to play the game.
Players from the Lady Salamander’s who attend the national world cup often go on to become volunteer ambassadors who nurture newer players on the field well after their two year stint has come to an end.
Lisa has been coming to Wellspring every Wednesday morning with the aim of introducing and recruiting guests to play for the Lady Salamanders.
“What I love the most about Wellspring is that the [staffers] are totally inclusive,” she said. “They don’t ask questions and they are okay with the women coming back and they are okay with the kids. They don’t require them to do anything except to come in and get a little bit of help or service. It’s really important that we have a few places like that. You’ve got to be able to break down the barriers of people who are struggling the most versus the people who are on the service side if they don’t have any trust then we never will be able to help them. So I think Wellspring plays a really pivotal role in being able to bridge that gap by being open and welcoming to all.”
The Lady Salamanders and Wellspring Women’s Center are fighting the same fight – to heal people whose lives are often perceived as mired beyond hope.
“That’s my personal thing with street soccer and with recovery – a lot of these things are solvable,” Lisa said.