Video by Steve Christensen
When everything was falling apart for Ingrid Melendez, she turned to her escape -- soccer.
It was Ingrid’s 12th grade year at Bell Multicultural High School in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, DC, and she was overwhelmed.
Taking all AP classes was hard enough. Throw in a daily commute from east of the Anacostia River that meant waking up at 6am daily; afternoon soccer practices followed by five-hour shifts at Cactus Cantina in Tenleytown (the opposite corner of the city from her home); and no computer at home to finish papers on, and life was exhausting.
That was before she suddenly lost her uncle -- the fourth person in Ingrid’s extended family who died during high school.
“I really had so much on my plate,” Ingrid recalled recently, “but my uncle … that was like shock. I was just like, ‘This cannot be happening.’ I was just in denial about things. I even slacked off in school because it hit me -- this is not a dream, I have to wake up. It was hard going to school because I had to put all my feelings aside and focus on my schoolwork.”
All of the above would be a load to handle for anyone, but add it to the pressure Ingrid felt trying to become the first from her family to go to college and she could have been excused for slipping.
Thanks in large part to soccer, she didn’t. This fall, Ingrid will indeed be the first member from her family to continue her education past high school when she enrolls at Trinity Washington University. She will study forensics, pursuing a career that hits close to home for her.
“I couldn’t imagine not knowing who killed my loved one,” Ingrid said. “I want to bring justice to families that have no answers, trying to get DC as safe as possible.”
Ingrid will also try out for the soccer team at Trinity this August. It’s hard to imagine the game not being a part of her life.
When life was the most chaotic during 12th grade, Ingrid had three consistent positives in her life -- supportive family, a coach who wouldn’t let her walk away, and the game she could always escape to.
Growing up with two older brothers -- and, much later, a younger brother -- and a dad who coached soccer, Ingrid was constantly around the game. She tagged along with her father to weekly El Salvadorean league games at Cardozo High School. She was envious of her brother Christian, three years older than her, coming home from DC SCORES games at Tubman Elementary School.
She waited impatiently until 3rd grade, when she could join the DC SCORES team at Tubman. And once she put on her first soccer uniform, it didn’t take long for Ingrid to feel a part of a second family.
“Once you’re on a team, I feel like they’re welcoming you into a family,” Ingrid said. “They’re not friends but they’re somebody you can rely on both soccer-related and otherwise.”
|Ingrid with her soccer coach and mentor, Asa Davis.|
Asa first met Ingrid when she was a 9-year-old at DC SCORES summer camp. Now, for the past two years, he has coached a girls team of program alumnae including Ingrid. During the toughest of times -- feeling depressed, sleep-deprived, and with her dreams waning -- Ingrid leaned on the support of her coach.
“The harder he pushed us, it motivated me,” Ingrid said. “(I’d think), ‘I’m doing this for my uncle. I’m not doing this for me.’ He’d be like, ‘Don’t stop, you can do it. I’ll be here to push you. We all are here and you’re not by yourself.’”
Those soccer practices are where Ingrid found the resolve to stay on top of her AP courses -- English, followed by Spanish, then Biology, and finally Probability & Statistics -- and to keep college in the equation by passing the difficult Capstone 12 class that was required for graduation.
With no computer at home, Ingrid visited public libraries to finish her homework. Sometimes, she’d complete work on her phone and then print it out at school the next day.
“It was overwhelming, but I got it done,” she said.
“Soccer got me focused. It was my distraction from everything around me. When I was having a bad day, I was looking forward to passing or touching a ball.”
Getting to do so often with her best friends made it all the more cathartic.
|Ingrid, left, with members of the DC SCORES Lincoln girls soccer team where she met her best friends.|
And she wanted to be on the DC SCORES team there.
Lincoln is where Ingrid found her soccer community. She met Sandra, Leila, Jennifer and Anely, and they played together at Lincoln and then Bell for seven years. In August, Ingrid will be joined by Sandra, Jennifer and Anely at Trinity; Leila is heading to UVA.
“Each one of us, some of us are stronger in one aspect but weaker in another,” Ingrid said. “And when you combine us, we actually have a working team. We know what we’re doing.
“There’s always arguments and stuff, but at the end of the day we always manage to put everything aside and just focus on our game.”
There will be many more to come.
|Ingrid has mentored kids for the last|
four years as an SYEP counselor.
That’s why she’s back at DC SCORES’ Marie Reed Arts & Soccer Camp for a fourth consecutive year as a Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) counselor. She wants to impart the many lessons she’s learned along her journey onto the third- and fourth-graders she interacts with daily.
An example -- don’t let being a girl and societal norms hinder you from becoming an all-star soccer player. Ingrid thinks back to what her father always told her -- “If you like (soccer) then go ahead; I’ll be your backbone. I’ll support you.” -- and to the lessons Asa included in practices such as trying different positions and facing new chapters.
She passes along everything she’s gained to young girls playing soccer for the first time.
“I always tell them it doesn’t matter if you’re a girl,” Ingrid said. “A girl can do anything a guy can do.”
Or more. This summer, Ingrid is also getting a bit more rest as she prepares for her next chapter as the first of her siblings to go to college. Her younger brother Dennis, 3, -- a big reason why Ingrid wanted to stay local -- could be next.
“Here is the moment,” Ingrid said at camp last week, a smile plastered on her face. “All of them sleepless nights and everything that’s happened to me throughout these four years.
“Here it is -- I’m going to college.”