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While Women and Girls in Soccer (WAGS) was founded in 1975, the idea for an organization that empowers women and girls through soccer is one years in the making.
Lula Bauer, the Chairwoman of WAGS, played sports growing up and began her undergraduate career wanting to major in physical education. Despite an untimely injury impacting her passion for sports and training, Bauer’s zeal for coaching never faded.
Bauer’s experience receiving her coaching training and certification in a male-dominated industry heavily influenced her perspective on what it meant to be a female coach in the United States.
“I never felt valued as a female athlete, as a female coach,” she recalled. “I never felt valued in the industry, but it didn’t deter me. As a female athlete, and as a female, I know how powerful that feeling [of being valued] is.”
When Bauer was training for her “B” license, the procedures required men and women to participate in the certification course together. As the only woman in her group, one instance, in particular, led to Bauer believing that something needed to change.
During the training portion of the course, a cross was whipped into the box with such force Bauer said it felt like a “cinder block.” The impact of the cross broke many tiny vessels in her muscle and chest wall, prompting emergency hematoma surgery.
“My dream really started there,” she said. “I hear that story from so many female coaches since we started WAGS. I remember saying, ‘I just really wish one day, there could be a movement of an all-female coaching course. An all-female coaching education course, an all-woman refereeing course.’ We need to have all-female coaching courses, all-female refereeing courses.”
As a charitable organization focused on creating opportunities for girls and young women to realize their full potential, WAGS fights to bring women’s soccer to the forefront. In forging relationships with various sports teams, WAGS identified the impact of partnering with the Washington Spirit.
WAGS has been a partner of the Washington Spirit since 2013 — the year the team started its first campaign in the inaugural NWSL season. Through this partnership, WAGS has remained committed to bringing an opportunity for female players to have a professional option in the NWSL.
The partnership has evolved over the years, including a sponsorship specific to the Alliance Program — an initiative that aims to influence the future of the game at the youth level by generating more opportunities by connecting local youth programs with the professional coaches and players at the Washington Spirit.
In addition to the Alliance Program, WAGS has continued to provide a connection to the professional game, players and recognition of a dedication to women’s soccer. Kerry Diederich, the Executive Director of WAGS, knows the incredible impact soccer can have on transforming the lives of young women and girls.
Diederich witnessed the positive impact soccer can have with her oldest daughter, who started playing collegiate soccer in the fall of 2018. Diederich’s background in marketing, as a former WAGS [League] Board Member and in youth soccer club programming allows her to advance WAGS’ goals of using soccer as a platform to empower women and girls to reach their full potential and impact their lives in a positive way.
“Our partnership with the Spirit brings a tangible symbol to the professional game and an awareness to young women and girls that they could be next to have the WAGS logo,” she said. “It’s within reach.”
Following the 2019 World Cup, women’s soccer was center stage. As one of the breakout stars of the tournament, Rose Lavelle gained both global and local recognition. Upon her return to the Spirit, Lavelle, along with her teammates, engaged with the community through a variety of different events.
Despite being top soccer talents, some of the players were having to call Ubers to attend the events. With everything WAGS stands for as an organization, Bauer knew this was one way to help. In February of 2019, WAGS purchased two, bright red Ford Escapes that were to be used by the players whenever required.
For WAGS, the cars were a way to show the players that they are valued and seen as integral parts of the Washington community.
“You have your own transportation so that you can proudly represent everything that you’ve worked for. Getting in the car will remind you of what a great job you’ve done. The driving force behind the cars was to make sure the player knew that they are valued.”
And the organization’s impact extends past transportation for the players. WAGS has contributed to improving training facilities for the team — the Spirit coordinated and WAGS sponsored a trip for the team to train away from the harsh winter weather in the D.C. area. The trip, which was meant to emulate spring training in other sports — was yet another way in which WAGS wanted to give the players a way to feel valued. WAGS also has been instrumental in the renovation of the team’s facilities and locker room.
Not only has WAGS worked to improve the self-worth and environment of the Washington Spirit, but the organization also sponsors a multitude of incredible programs.
In June of 2017, WAGS began supporting the Women of Worth (WOW) program run by the University of Lynchburg’s Women’s Soccer Team. WOW and WAGS partnered with Sports Outreach to empower women and girls in Gulu and Katwe, Uganda. The mission of this program is to help women and girls to not just thrive in their communities, but thrive in life.
WAGS provided critically needed computers, office software, supplies, funding to hire a teacher, and enabled the opening of the WAGS Gulu and Katwe Educational Resource Centers, which began operating in 2018. WAGS’ support of this program is instrumental in giving the women and girls in Gulu the opportunity to break out of a desperate cycle through soccer.
In 2019, coaches and players returned to Uganda to again empower the WOW Girls they sponsor. The trip included the delivery of gift bags of needed items. The trip also aimed to explore additional opportunities to reach communities in desperate need of aid. For many girls around the world, playing soccer is a luxury they can’t afford. But that doesn’t mean soccer can’t have a positive and impactful role in changing their lives.
On a local scale, WAGS runs several all-female coaching and refereeing courses. Understanding that many women choose not to get their certification — mainly due to high costs of training courses — WAGS organized an all-female training environment that encourages women to become certified coaches and referees.
“We’ve created an all-female coaching environment,” Bauer said. “We fund the facility. We sponsor the registration. We create an environment of an all-female coaching course and WAGS pays for the entire coaching course. We also bring in meals for our candidates. We provide them apparel so it gives them a uniform feeling, which gives them that feeling of being valued.”
As part of these certification courses, most of which cost thousands of dollars, WAGS additionally provides female coaches with daycare options. Coaches with young children are permitted to bring their children to the training sessions, with WAGS providing childcare.
With an emphasis on international and local programs, WAGS also is active at the high school and college level — through the Adele Dolansky College Scholarships. WAGS funds and awards four, $10,000 college scholarships to empower and support the exceptional female soccer athlete to play at the collegiate level. In order to qualify for the scholarship, applicants must plan on playing in college and maintain at least a 3.7 GPA.
The organization also looks for students who excel in a broad variety of extracurricular activities and who demonstrate active participation in community service. The four individuals who are selected as recipients of the scholarships must embrace the characteristics and qualities necessary to play on an elite soccer team and apply them to her daily life.
“Whatever we do, whatever our contributions are, it has to be life-changing,” Bauer said. “It has to be life-changing in order to make an impact on our women and girls through soccer.”
The Adele Dolansky College Scholarships are further demonstrations of WAGS’ dedication to empowering women and girls through soccer. These life-altering contributions not only help prepare young women for success in collegiate careers, they also illustrate WAGS’ commitment to making sure the recipients feel valued.
The funds WAGS provides to their multiple programs primarily come from the annual WAGS tournament —the organization’s signature event held every October.
Moving forward, WAGS will continue to support the Spirit as often as possible, as well as provide opportunities to sponsor, develop, or provide educational and character-building programs for the benefit of girls and women.
“Our partnership with the Washington Spirit supports our mission of being singularly focused on creating opportunities for women and girls to reach their full potential using soccer as our platform,” Diederich concluded.
After spending years feeling undervalued and underappreciated as a woman in the sport of soccer, for Bauer, the ability to impact the futures of women and girls is a profound privilege.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how incredible of a feeling it is for me,” she said. “It empowers me to continue. It’s so incredibly gratifying. I know that the women and females who are taking our coaching courses are feeling valued, and that is just so empowering.”