On Friday nights, a group of more than 40 girls gathers at the LAB FIVE soccer center in Pacoima to play each other in small, yet competitive games.
Called “Her Footy Friday,” pick-up games are held every Friday at 7 p.m. Through the nonprofit organization “Football For Her”, young girls along with those who identify as nonbinary are invited to participate.
“My mission statement is to educate, motivate and develop confidence,” said Football For Her founder Shawna Palmer.
“We have a safe and inclusive space for those who identify as female and non-binary to just come and play. We also bring in different professional players and resources to help our participants be prepared for life after high school, whatever that may be.
“If they all want to be professional soccer players, awesome, but that’s not necessarily our goal within the organization. It’s more so to see how sports can really change and impact our lives.”
Palmer said the Footy Friday clinics have drawn more than 400 participants so far.
“We have a huge Latina and Hispanic community, so we had somebody from the Mexican league virtually here and I had somebody in person and then we had trivia night,” Palmer explained. “We’ve got 85 different participants … that’s kind of where we shifted our focus to our free Friday programming here.”
“There’s a lot of kids in this area that love the sport and it’s right in the middle of the neighborhood, which I think is great, so being able to serve the San [Fernando] Valley up here is awesome,” Palmer said. “We’re looking to expand next year into South LA.”
Palmer has received a lot of gratitude from parents, particularly moms, for creating the organization and hosting the clinics so their daughters could play.
“I definitely had a lot of moms say, ‘I wish I had this when I was growing up’ or ‘I wish I had the opportunity to play,’” Palmer recounted. “I’ve had multiple moms say, ‘Only my brothers could play soccer … I wasn’t allowed to play.’ So to be able to bring their daughters here, it’s been something really special.”
One of those moms is Irma Torres, whose daughters Betsy, 11, and Abby, 9, signed up for Football For Her. Torres first heard about the organization last October through Instagram, and she decided to sign up her daughters to get them to experience a “different atmosphere.”
Torres, who lives in Woodland Hills, said that she and the girls have rarely missed a Footy Friday since then. Torres said it’s a very nice and safe environment for girls, and that she has noticed her daughters grow to love the sport. She also has seen a change in her eldest daughter, Betsy.
“She [was] very shy and became very social with all the girls,” Torres said. “She’s more outgoing [now]. I see the funny side come out. When she started, she was playing with a younger group of kids. Now, she actually took the level up and she’s playing with the older kids, and I see the confidence in her. It completely changed.”
Parker Schumacker, 10, from Simi Valley joined Football For Her in 2020 after hearing about it from her father, who also learned about it on Instagram. She said she likes coming to the clinics because of meeting and playing with the other girls and getting the chance to get advice from professional athletes, as well as advancing her own skills.
“I do strive to play because I get to see how people have different levels — some people are really good,” Schumacker said. “So if it’s their first time here, and I’m rushing them, then I can see how they play.”
Taylor Mendoza, 10, lives three hours away in Porterville beyond Bakersfield. Her mother has made the commitment to drive Mendoza into the Northeast San Fernando Valley because they like what is offered and the bonds of support that are being created.
“My experience [with Football For Her] so far has been great because I get to meet new people and make new soccer friends and learn from cool mentors. [They taught me] how to communicate on and off the field … [and] always have fun and work hard.
“It’s like a sisterhood. Everybody is friends with everybody. We’re all laughing and having a good time,” said Mendoza.
More Female Representation
Palmer founded Football For Her as a nonprofit organization in 2019. A former professional athlete, she grew up in the Inland Empire and was inspired to get into the sport through her older sisters. She went on to play in the National Women’s Soccer League, Australia’s W-League and in Sweden’s first division for Umeå IKFF.
Palmer said there was a scarcity of female sports role models in her youth, and a lack of female coaches when she played professionally. There was also a lack of diversity.
After providing some private lessons and working with other nonprofits, Palmer started her organization in Ontario, near her hometown.
She initially had a clinic of 40 high-level players that she coached and mentored. When the pandemic struck the next year, everything went virtual.
Palmer held two virtual summits, which she said had more than 100 different participants in each. Palmer used the new format to her advantage, bringing on other female pros to talk to the players. Names like Lisa Zimouche, Heather O’Reilly, Margaret Purce and Lauren Barnes were all part of the clinics at one point, not only to teach soccer skills but to bring their wisdom and life lessons too.
Zimouche — a notable figure in freestyle soccer — would give freestyle tutorials, while O’Reilly would cover topics like leadership.
In 2021, Palmer began doing more in-person activities as restrictions began to lift. In November, she piloted the Footy Friday program at LAB FIVE, which has been partnered with Football For Her since 2020.
Striving to be More Inclusive
Palmer is also expanding in other ways. While thinking about how she could make her organization even more inclusive, she noticed that there were no other organizations in the area that were open to non-binary athletes.
“I thought, how can I get to more girls and how can I make this as efficient as possible so, you know, making sure that those who identify as non-binary feel comfortable coming out and playing here,” Palmer said.
Football For Her began opening up to non-binary athletes a few months ago and also started to ask participants on the registration form if they identify as non-binary. Palmer admitted that, as of yet, no one has said they identify as non-binary, but that her organization is open to anyone who does.
Football For Her is the only soccer organization that includes non-binary players in its mission statement in the San Fernando Valley. There are other soccer organizations that welcome non-binary individuals in California, including the Golden Gate Women’s Soccer League in San Francisco.
Since Her Footy Friday is only between the participants in Football For Her, and the teams are often mixed each week, Palmer said there would be no issues if a non-binary player, who is biologically male, were to join.
“There aren’t any spaces held for the non-binary community, and we as an organization feel like soccer is for everyone,” Palmer said. “If we can provide a safe and inclusive space for just a couple of hours on one day of the week … we’re willing and wanting to do that.”
For more information about Football For Her and to sign up, go to https://www.footballforher.org/.