On a Saturday evening at Metropolitan Oval in Queens, Vanessa Perez and her sister Litzy sat down with NYCFC.com to share the story of Ladies International United (LIU) and how they are using the power of soccer to impact girls and young women in New York City.
For the Perez sisters, soccer was a part of growing up but they hardly look back on the sport passionately, “I never used to like it because when I was younger my mom would always turn off cartoons to watch soccer,” Vanessa recalls with a laugh. A lot has changed since then, including their feelings towards soccer.
In 2014, instead of going to school where she would experience more bullying Litzy Perez tried to commit suicide. Thankfully, Litzy survived. While she was in a strict rehabilitation program following the suicide attempt, Vanessa could only see her sister through a small window. Vanessa shared it was an extremely difficult time for the Perez family, “After everything that happened, it was heartbreaking to not be able to see her. It was hard for my parents too, because they could only see their daughter twice a day for one hour.”
At 17 years old, Vanessa was struggling with being away from her sister and recognized that she needed something to help her cope. “While my sister was away, I started playing soccer with my friends for the first time. It became a passion. I wanted to learn more and more. My mom bought me my first pair of boots because she wanted me to keep playing so I wouldn’t feel isolated from not being able to see my sister. Soccer became something that allowed me to take my mind off everything. It became a safe space during the hard times.”
Eventually, Litzy Perez was released from rehabilitation and was working towards recovery back home with her family. Vanessa expressed to Litzy how soccer helped her and encouraged her to start playing too. When Vanessa became involved in City In The Community’s Youth Leadership Council, she introduced Litzy to the program, and it became a big piece of Litzy’s healing. It was there that Litzy came out as a suicide survivor for the first time, “In that program, everyone was so supportive. The coaches, all the staff, everyone was very understanding of my situation and they made me feel safe in that environment and it helped me open up more. From then on, it got easier for me.”
Back on the pitch, the Perez sisters were playing on local teams as beginners but struggled with their lack of skills. Their dad, Rodolfo Perez, stepped in and decided to establish a team for his daughters to play on and grow their knowledge of the game. “He didn’t care if we were good or not, he just wanted us to try our best.”
That team has since become Ladies International United (LIU) and partnered with Rooklyn International Football Association (RIFA), a non-profit that has run a free soccer programming for boys for more than ten years, to help bring the game to more girls and young women. Rodolfo Perez continues to coach LIU, while Vanessa and Litzy’s mom is always ready on the sidelines to provide support to all of the players. Playing soccer helped bring joy to the Perez family, and they have since helped extend that joy to others through LIU.
Vanessa notes the importance of giving young women a welcoming place to play, "With LIU and RIFA, we want to get more girls involved in soccer. We focus on young women from around the world and refugees. When you come from a different country, it can be harder to adapt. We want to allow people who come to New York City to have a safe space. When you play soccer, you don’t have to speak the same language. You just need a ball, and everything comes together."
Litzy wants to create more opportunities through soccer in New York City and LIU and RIFA supports that, "Combining our team with RIFA, gives us the chance to make LIU bigger. It gives girls who have the passion to play more opportunities to play without a financial burden. Our vision is to make soccer more universal. It doesn’t matter your gender, race, skin color, whether you’re big or small, if you want to play you can play. We want to give that opportunity to everyone."
On that Saturday at Metropolitan Oval, LIU became the champions of Liga Libertador Bolivar NY. To celebrate, the team will be visiting the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island with Sky Blue FC players and staff to learn about the history of immigration in New York City and the United States. With another season in the books, the Perez Family looks forward to continuing to impact their community though the beautiful game, “In New York City, it’s easy to bring people together. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, but everyone speaks soccer.”
For the past ten years, Rooklyn International Football Association has provided a space where asylee, immigrant and refugee youth can connect with their peers in a safe and supportive environment. RIFA achieve its mission to empower asylee, immigrant and refugee youth through soccer and mentorship by providing a positive space where our youth participants can connect with their peers in a safe and supportive environment to develop their soccer, language, and leadership skills. With support from our donors and sponsors, RIFA will continue to sustain an environment that fosters those skills and expand our programs to serve additional youth.
RIFA partners with Ladies International United (LIU) to deliver programming for girls and young women. LIU was founded in 2015 by Vanessa Perez and her father Rodolfo Perez. They were motivated to establish a team after sister Litzy Perez survived a suicide attempt. Playing soccer helped bring joy to the Perez family, and that have since help extend that joy to others. LIU attracts players who are newcomers to the U.S. and who are not able to access or afford playing in the traditional U.S. league structure. Approximately 30 young women were served in 2018-19, representing multiple home countries, including: Brazil, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Paraguay.