Since 2013, MLS has recognized individuals who use soccer to improve the lives of others through its MLS Works Community MVP Contest. At stake in the contest is a $25,000 prize to a charity of the winner’s choosing. Each club nominates an MVP for a chance to win the grand prize.
This year, the Timbers selected Scott Jeffries as the local MVP. Scott currently volunteers as a homework tutor and youth mentor with the Immigrant Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) and is a 107IST member. He has led campaigns through the Timbers Army to donate money and supplies for refugees, purchase equipment and cover field fees for refugee kids to play soccer and futsal.
We sat down with Scott to learn more about his work in the community.
Are you a Portland native? If not, what brought you to Portland, and how did you come to support the Timbers?
I’m a recovering Californian. I was born and raised in the LA area, went to college in San Francisco, and then moved up to Portland 15 years ago, literally the morning after graduation. I’ve had family in the Pacific Northwest all my life and came up to visit often, and somehow I always knew I would wind up here. I went to my first Timbers game in 2007 on a lark, not being much of a soccer fan at the time. I got sideline seats and probably spent more time watching the Timbers Army than the game itself. I vowed to come back and join the party the North End, and the rest is history. I got season tickets in 2010 which might be the best decision I’ve ever made.
How did you get involved with the 107IST?
It was just a natural outgrowth of getting into the Timbers Army. I wanted to support the charity and Tifo efforts, and that got me into doing volunteer work at places like the Food Bank and Operation Pitch Invasion. I had never really volunteered for anything in my life before and it really taught me the value of giving back to your community.
How did you get involved with IRCO?
I was feeling pretty shell shocked the morning after the election and felt the need to get out and do something. I was incredibly disturbed by the things being said about immigrants and Muslims and so I Googled “Portland refugees” and IRCO came up. I checked out their volunteer page, and it said they needed Saturday morning homework tutors, which I thought I could be good at. So I went out there that weekend and got stuck in. Pretty soon they talked me into doing their “big brother” style mentoring, and I signed up before I could really think about what I was doing. I’d never done something like that before, don’t have children (yet), and didn’t have siblings growing up, so I was going in pretty blind, but I fell right into it and it’s been an extremely rewarding experience.
What is the background of the people you mentor? Do the majority of your mentees come from a particular country/region?
IRCO clients typically come from Africa and Asia. There are a lot from the Horn of Africa and Nepal. Many of them fled civil wars and oppressive governments. The family I worked with in particular lived in a refugee camp for seven years before coming here, and that’s not an uncommon experience. I can’t begin to imagine what that is like, and hardly any of us can. It really puts things into perspective, both in terms of how good we actually have it here and how much America still represents that land of hope to millions of people around the world. I can’t imagine how anyone could look someone like that in the eye and tell them that they don’t deserve to be here, but I suppose that’s the real problem, that immigrants and refugees are just an abstract concept to most people and they just don’t comprehend what people leave behind to come here.
What does your work as a tutor and mentor consist of?
On Saturdays from 10-1, I help the kids with homework, usually math. We have an army of tutors who show up, generally the same group of people each weekend. All the kids bring their homework and it’s just kind of a free-for-all. The kids get to know you after a while. They tend to line up in the morning waiting for me to get there and then argue about who was there first. It’s a nice feeling having kids fighting over you!
As a mentor, I work with that refugee family I mentioned. I mentor one of the kids in particular, but it’s a big family with lots of children, and I inevitably wind up doing things with all of them. I met my mentee as a sophomore, and he’s about to start his senior year, which is really exciting. I’m a big baseball fan, and, to my surprise, he was too, though he didn’t know any of the rules. I’d take him out to the local little league field and we’d play catch, take batting practice, and I’d explain how the game works. He joined his high school team and has turned into a really good player. Other than that, I help him with homework a lot, take him to the library, and things like that. Right now he’s studying for his learner’s permit so pretty soon I might also be teaching him to drive, which is a little scary.
What are some of the difficulties you notice immigrants and refugees face in general and Portland in particular?
The hardest part for the kids is probably the language barrier. They come here with varying degrees of English but they’re almost always better at speaking than reading and struggle with some of the more complex words they face, especially in math. The schools aren’t set up to help kids who speak less common languages. We’re grappling with that right now as this kid is studying for his learner’s permit. The DMV handbook doesn’t come in his native language, and the English they use is at a much higher level than it needs to be. So he can’t even understand a lot of the questions on the test.
It’s probably harder for the adults who often come here without job skills and any real understanding of the language. IRCO does a great job assisting them as well, but it’s harder for them to integrate into the culture. Kids are more naturally adaptive and being in school gives them hope for the future. The father in this family is disabled due to his military service and doesn’t speak English, so he really has no job prospects. They have six children and even more siblings and cousins and grandchildren. So they all support each other. While the father may need assistance, other members of the family do work, and the children are all going to grow up and get jobs and start their own families who will do the same, which shows how immigrants are a net benefit to the economy. Even if his family weren’t there to provide support, though, that would not change my strong belief that we, the richest country in the world, should be a place that welcomes everyone with open arms and considers it our pleasure and our duty to help the less fortunate.
Is Portland a relatively easy or difficult place for refugees compared to other cities in the US?
It’s hard to say since I don’t have much to compare it to but I think it’s a bit harder here just because the immigrant communities are smaller and there’s less social support. It’s probably harder to feel like you fit in here when compared to more diverse cities. You can go to New York or Los Angeles or Minneapolis and find a large community, wherever you come from.
Like everyone, they are really struggling with the rapidly rising cost of living here. Some IRCO clients have moved to cheaper parts of the country like Columbus or Des Moines.
Could you share a success story?
When I first started mentoring my “little brother”, his GPA was below 2.0. We got that up to the threes the next semester, and then the following semester he got straight A’s. He was also awarded the best pitcher on his high school team this year, barely a year after he started playing the sport. Really, the success stories for me are just seeing all these kids as they grow up and get more confident and outgoing. You get to know each of their unique personalities over time and develop a rapport with them.
How does soccer factor into your work with immigrants and refugees?
Soccer is really our biggest cultural tie and the easiest way to make these kids feel at home. They can come to America and immediately fit in on the soccer field, make friends, and feel like they belong. Every minute they’re playing soccer is a minute that they’re not feeling isolated or falling in with the wrong crowd. The Timbers are an incredibly diverse team, which reflects the global appeal of the sport. The kids can watch the team and see someone who looks like them.
Can you further describe the connection between IRCO and 107IST?
It just naturally arose out of efforts by myself and Michelle DeFord. I had been doing my thing while she was independently organizing supply drives, and we connected with each other and started working on bigger things. As I said, there is a natural draw toward soccer for these kids. Getting official support was really a no-brainer. Our only problem now is that we have too many ideas and not enough time or money to accomplish them all. But I’m really excited for where we might go from here.
Do you have any advice for people considering getting involved?
I think the biggest barrier for people is just feeling like they’ll be able to do it, whether you’re afraid you won’t know the subjects well enough to help with the homework, or you’ve never spent time around kids and don’t know how to relate to them. Really you just need to see that someone cares, and like I said before, the biggest obstacle is often the language and just helping them understand what a question is asking and how to respond to it. There are many tutors there who know all different subjects and so you often are going to each other for help or handing off kids to someone who knows a subject better. I spend a lot of time Googling things on my phone, and I think it actually puts them at ease to see an English-speaking adult who doesn’t know the answer, either. If homework isn’t your thing, there are many other ways you can help.
Even if your passion lies somewhere else entirely, I would encourage everyone to pursue whatever drives them and try to involve 107IST/TA/RCR however you can. Especially if you’re newer to those groups or have always considered yourself on the fringes, you can easily take up an initiative and try to get official support. We hear a lot from people that they don’t know how to get started with volunteer efforts (and I say “we” as a fan and 107IST member, not as someone with an official position or who was remotely part of the TA OGs banging on pickle buckets). The answer is just to do it. 107IST publicizes their volunteer opportunities in emails and social media and so you just need to seek out that information and show up. If you have an idea for something new you want to do, it’s up to you to do it. No one’s going to hold your hand or do it for you. Too many people talk about things they want the TA/107ist to do but too few people actually do them. If you want to paint a banner, paint a banner. If you want to start a new chant, teach the words to everyone you know and sing it before the game. If you want to volunteer for something, show up. If you want to start a new 107IST initiative, make it happen. 107ist and the TA don’t really operate through a “suggestion box”. The lifeblood of these groups has always been direct action by people who want to accomplish something.
You can vote for Scott in the MLS Works Community MVP contest until August first.