Local Sonoma coach arranges sports scholarships through La Luz

Belinda Halloran started working at age 11. She was an avid athlete and needed to earn money to help her parents afford sports team and league costs.

The investment paid off. By age 17, she had multiple offers for full scholarships from colleges that identified her as an elite athlete, which propelled her adult athletic career in such fields as track, swimming and soccer.

Because of her journey from cash-strapped kid to pro athlete, Halloran describes herself as being “acutely aware” of the financial obstacles faced by families when trying to enter the world of competitive sports.

“Here in Sonoma I want to help talented athletes acknowledge their talent and give them the opportunity to start an athletic career despite financial difficulties,” said Halloran.

The Australia native, and mother of four, has partnered with La Luz to offer a youth sports scholarship program for local minority students pursuing competitive sports careers.

The program does not yet have an official title and is not rushing to claim one either. As Halloran explained, “(We’re) trying to come up with a name that is worthy of representing our local minority community. We’re trying to do that in the best possible light, and we’re really at the beginning stages.”

The program awards $200 to competitive athletes to cover a year of sports costs, but is not intended as a grab-and-go allowance.

“The program is a partnership with the athlete not a hand out,” stressed Halloran. “We ask that the athlete commit to giving something back.”

This year, the scholarship recipients walked in the July 4th parade with La Luz. Later this year, the young athletes will share their sporting success stories at local schools and community centers.

In the program’s pilot year, sole support from La Luz provided four athletes with scholarships, but further community contributions will determine whether these aspiring players will have the means to continue into next season. Halloran hopes for the program’s continuation and the ability to create new scholarships as well. But, at the moment, that future is rather nebulous.

“We are hoping that more businesses and community members will see the program’s value and contribute to its success,” said Halloran. “I’m confident that when people know what we are trying to do for these students, they will come on board.”

As a former athlete who attained success as a child and whose professional career spanned 15 years, Halloran has competed at the state level in triathlon, track and field, swimming, soccer, cross-country running and co-ed and women’s touch football. Most prominent is her training in triathlon, which led her to represent Australia seven times at the World Triathlon Championships, where she ranked third as a junior competitor in 1995.

After leaving the world of competitive sports, she joined the world of politics and became Deputy Mayor of Mosman in Sydney, Australia.

“My passion in politics was youth and minority groups in the community,” said Halloran, who synthesized her interest in social activism and youth sports into this year’s pilot program with La Luz.

Maria Ornales, the mother of a scholarship recipient, reminisced about her own athletic endeavors as a child and how money facilitated the involuntary, yet necessary end to sports in her life.

“I played (soccer) when I was younger, for six years,” said Ornales. “But I had to quit because my parents just couldn’t pay for it anymore.”

She hopes to give to her daughter, Elizabeth, an opportunity she never had: the possibility of a sports career. And this year, with help from Halloran’s program, Elizabeth was able to join Sonoma Soccer Club as a U12 competitor.

Still, $200 couldn’t cover all the costs, and Ornales sought assistance from additional sponsors.

Horetnica Rivias, whose daughter Jasmin received one of the scholarships and started her first competitive season at Sonoma Soccer Club after two years on recreational teams, described the financial burden of sports on the family as “really hard.”

The baseline cost of participating in Sonoma Soccer Club’s competitive program is $450, a figure that includes a registration fee of $200, team fees (tournament entry costs and equipment) of $150, and a basic uniform package fee of roughly $100. Other prominent Sonoma County soccer clubs charge even more: At Atletico, players pay upwards of $1,000 per year; Santa Rosa United costs are dependent upon age group and, as of 2016, range from the U9 price of nearly $1,000 to the U14-U19 price of nearly $1,700.

Halloran knows that $200 may not sufficiently cover the upfront and hidden costs of participating in competitive sports, but hopes that the program will evolve to a point where the level of economic support can far exceed the support given this year.

“I wanted at least half the funds for our local competitive sport programs,” she said. “I was really keen on getting it established, because I knew that the need was there. I wasn’t going to knock back any level of support and neither were the parents because they’ve had to be doing it alone.”

“I really think that,” continued Halloran, before pausing to reconsider her words and perhaps avoid “jinxing” the future of the program. “I’m really hoping that it will grow from here.”

The scholarship program is not the only mark Halloran is making on the Sonoma Valley, to which she moved four years ago. Locally, Halloran has coached soccer, track and field, run a track and field summer camp at the Hanna Boys Center and is a part of the NorCal Premier Soccer Women’s Committee, which selected her out of 25 applicants and whose mission is “to increase and retain the number of women in leadership positions within the NorCal Premier Soccer Community.” With the Committee’s support, Halloran hopes to develop her coaching skills and eventually take on a Sonoma Soccer Club or high school team.

Looking back, Halloran realizes that her own athletic success came with a price tag.

“But with access, comes exposure and greater opportunities down the road,” she said.

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