In Paris' Jardin de Tuileries, Rovel Sparkes joined a pickup soccer game. In Rome, he joined another one. Born in Jamaica and raised mainly in Oakland, Sparkes doesn't speak a word of Portuguese, "but I went to Brazil and played soccer on the beach," he said. "Soccer is its own language. I've traveled the world, and soccer has always been the language that enabled me to merge into whatever country and community I'm in."
Because the sport has meant so much to him and done so much for him since he began playing soccer as a small boy in Kingston, Sparkes founded the My Yute Soccer Camp in Oakland three years ago for boys and girls ages six to twelve. At no cost to the players or their parents, the camp entails a week of practice and games on the Oakland Technical High School campus. Its high-profile coaches are members of Africari, the East Bay-based soccer league in which Sparkes has played for ten years. Founded in 1989 by Liberian-born Tamba Davis and Trinidadian-born Clyde Lochin — hence its name, from "African" and "Caribbean" — the league is dazzlingly multicultural.
"On my first visit to Africari, what impressed me was the fact that we had eighteen different guys from fourteen different countries, speaking ten different languages," recalled Sparkes, who has played Division One soccer in San Jose. "I thought: Whoa, this is home to me. So I wanted to create a camp for kids that had the same goals as I see in my own league."
These goals involve both body and soul: Physical fitness and good nutrition are foremost, from what he calls "the beautiful game" itself to the fresh-fruit and raw-vegetable snacks served at breaktime. Along with that fitness comes awareness of other cultures, lifestyles, and lives.
"Even in a diverse community like Oakland, most kids don't get a chance to seriously interact with other cultures until they're in college," he said. "So our camp creates access for these kids across social, cultural, and economic borders. Our campers come from Piedmont, Rockridge, Montclair, East Oakland, West Oakland. They learn to travel outside of their own familiar environments and push themselves beyond what they thought were their limits."
Playing any team sport "creates camaraderie. But it also teaches you to be humble, to grow spiritually as well as physically," said Sparkes. He wants his campers to enjoy the sense of belonging and togetherness he felt as a child playing soccer on the street. "I was raised on a street called Unity Lane. Kids came from other neighborhoods to play on our street. It's been part of me from day one. It's corny, but when I think about it, soccer is Unity Lane."
Local chefs will compete at a Jamaican Jerk Cookoff, a benefit for My Yute Soccer Camp, at Linden Street Brewery (95 Linden St., Oakland) on Saturday, May 1. Linden brews, Periscope wines, and live music are also part of the fun. 1 p.m., $25. MyYuteSoccer.org