As evening falls every Monday and Wednesday, children of many ages are seen practicing with a soccer ball on the fields of Friendship Park in Avondale.
They are part of the Sun Warriors AZ Football Club which was founded by Stephanie Martínez and her husband Miguel Román in 2020.
At first glance, it seems like a club like any other of the many that operate in the Valley. But it distinguishes itself by promoting altruism, not only in its athletes but also in their families.
Martínez, a Tolleson resident, believes that by offering these young people the opportunity to get involved in their community through a social cause, better athletes and better future leaders are formed.
Since a very young age, Martínez has always made it a priority to give back to her Latino community in whichever way she can, whether that was in college in California, or serving predominantly Black and Brown communities in Arizona.
Born in Bradley, Calif., Martínez is the daughter of farmworker and immigrant parents.
She was the first in her family to attend college, studying at California State University, San Marcos. There she started a student program that supported the children of immigrants by discussing the prospect of college with their parents, many of which are farmworkers, just like hers.
“We gave the parents of 11th and 12th graders tools, such as existing financial aid like FAFSA), and put ourselves out there as an example of the importance of continuing their education and obtaining a college degree. This was where my passion for helping the Latino community was born,” Martínez said.
She then met Román, who is now her husband, and followed him to Phoenix.
“I started working for the State of Arizona. Then I changed to an organization that helped promote physical and mental health, where I spent eight years,” Martínez said.
In 2018, she joined the team at Circle The City, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing medical service to homeless people in the Valley. They have four mobile clinics of which she is the director of operations.
“My job consists of building community relationships in order for us to know where to take our teams; to find a place to put ourselves every day to help all the people we can,” Martínez said.
Fútbol and community service
Martínez and her husband have always had the same vision: to help others and instill in their two sons, Miguel Ángel Jr., 10, and Benjamin, 2, a commitment to their community and continuing in their footsteps of giving back.
“It’s easy for children to forget those lessons that are learned when one doesn’t have everything; that things cost money; that one has to work hard in order to earn what they have and that we should be grateful for what we have,” Román said. “Not everything is fun and happiness … one has to give and support the community and those who have less.”
That is why the couple decided to form the soccer club, where they currently have seven teams, ranging from the ages of 3 to 13 years old.
The idea was formed about five years ago. Martínez and her family would collect funds in their neighborhood and use it to buy food, groceries, shirts and hygiene products. They would put together about 20 to 25 bags that they distributed at Christmastime to some of Arizona’s homeless population.
“Seeing what we were doing, other family and friends began to support us and began to do the work with us,” Martínez said.
Because Román was passionate about the sport, Martínez and her husband decided to put the two — soccer and altruism — together.
It would take a few years before actually forming an official club though. It wasn’t until 2020 that they decided to form the Sun Warriors AZ FC soccer club, just as COVID-19 was spreading around the world.
“It was something very difficult because the parents did not want to take the children to the games and much less support other causes, but we did not want to give up, to help the community,” Martínez said.
They did not give up. The first initiative took place in November 2020, where their goal was to help people suffering from breast cancer. Together with donated t-shirts from The Print House AZ company, they sold the merchandise and with the proceeds brought snacks to Arizona Oncology for patients receiving chemotherapy.
Just a few weeks later, the Sun Warriors “soccer family” got together to help pack and distribute food boxes to community members in time for Thanksgiving.
“We collected turkeys, hams, food of all kinds for a Thanksgiving dinner. We made baskets which we distributed to low-income families,” Martínez said.
The club has fostered a philanthropic sentiment, so much so that parents and children have donated their time and money to collect toys that they give to low-income children at Christmas.
Mayra Dávila, a parent and member of the club’s board of directors, said that being part of Sun Warriors AZ FC changed her life and lives of her children: Julián, 7, and Nataly, 10.
“The objective is to instill in the little ones the value of hard work and teamwork and to sow in them values of community service,” Dávila said.
For club members, joining Sun Warriors is about creating community by approaching the sport through a community lens — volunteering, promoting social service activities, in order to thrive together.
According to the club’s website, a club member “believes the sport of soccer sets the foundation for lifelong skills such as determination, perseverance, and empowerment. We are committed to our community through service, creating young leaders, and giving back to our community.”
“The difference between this club and others is that the experience is not only for the children but also for the parents; looking for positive opportunities where they can instill values in the little ones and enjoy a healthy family environment,” Dávila said.
For little Miguel Angel Román Jr., being part of the Sun Warriors has taught him a lot, both as a footballer and as a person.
“What I have learned from this experience is that it is always good to help those who may not have what we have, since sometimes it is easy to forget. Helping always makes me feel that I can make a little difference for our community,” he said.
For Martínez that is what motivates her. “You try to give that message and there are those who recognize the work and join to support the cause. That’s the beauty of doing this: that the more people join, the more people we can help.”
This story is part of the Faces of Arizona series. Have feedback or ideas on who we should cover? Send them to editor Kaila White at [email protected].
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