Daniel Varela: Building a Place for All
August 10, 2017
Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Daniel Varela’s life has taken him to many places, but it was when he found himself stranded in his home country that he found his purpose in life.
Varela is the co-founder of the First Goal, a San Diego-based nonprofit, which focuses on improving the lives of children on both sides of the border through soccer and education.
As a child in Mexico, Varela showed an affinity in school and for sports, particularly soccer. Varela lived in Mexico until the age of 13, when he and his family moved to Del Mar.
“I had studied and could speak in English but I wasn’t fluent which embarrassed me,” said Varela. “I went from being in a school with 600 students to one with 3,000 students. Not to mention that there aren’t a lot of Mexicans in Del Mar which made the transition difficult.”
Slowly but surely, Varela became accustomed to life north of the border and was accepted into Cal State San Marcos after high school.
“At college I became more outgoing and met many people from different cultures,” Varela said to La Prensa San Diego. “However I became depressed and just focused on working to make some money.”
Varela would later have a change of heart that would take him to return to school.
“In 2009 I decided to major in kinesiology after I concluded that I wanted to live with a gym bag in hand and not a briefcase and that I wanted to help children,” Varela said.
In this return to school, Varela met Laurel Swanson, his future wife.
However, things took a turn for the worse for Varela, when he was found by authorities to be living in the United States illicitly. Upon confessing to an overstay in 2012, Varela’s Visa privilege was taken away and he was given a lifetime bar from entering the United States.
Upon signing voluntary departure papers, Varela found himself stranded in Tijuana looking for any job to sustain himself.
“Within a week I found a house and a job but at this job all I did was computer work and just kept to myself so I didn’t have much human interaction,” Varela remembered. “Laurel would come to visit me on the weekends but other than that the only interactions I had in Tijuana were with my dogs.”
While in Mexico, Varela appealed and tried to get his bar waived. Travelling as far as Ciudad Juarez, on the border with El Paso, Texas, for legal filings. Although his appeals were constantly rejected, he never gave up hope and continued filing in hopes of returning stateside.
Back in Tijuana, and while working out at a run down neighborhood park, Varela noticed kids from around the block observing him. He then saw an opportunity to clean up the park by asking the kids if they would be interested in helping out if provided with supplies and pizza at the end of the day.
“Like 12 kids showed up and we collected about 40 bags of garbage” Varela said. “Kids then started asking about getting help with exercise so we started working out three times a week.”
Over time, interest in making a neighborhood soccer team began to form. Having played collegiate soccer at CSU San Marcos, Varela obliged due to his love of the for the game.
“I love watching soccer, coaching soccer, analyzing soccer, and especially playing soccer,” Varela said. “So I could only say yes.”
After reaching finals in their first two tournaments, Varela saw that he had a competitive group full of promise.
Despite the immediate success on the pitch, Daniel needed help financing and running this neighborhood soccer program.
“Laurel began to bring things from (San Diego) like old televisions, radios, used clothes to sell at the flea market,” Varela remembered. “We made just enough to keep our project running.”
Varela would soon begin to work with teenagers, which he saw as the minors that were at greater risk of falling into drugs and gangs.
“To me it was important to develop a team for older kids and teens in order to offer them structure and advice,” he said. “There were a lot of positive things that they didn’t know or hadn’t heard about so that was very important, especially to those youths that were away from home a lot.”
Varela hasn’t just made an impact on the lives those children at the park, but has also left a bit of a legacy by helping build a place for all to play soccer.
“One day we had gone to an old sports park which was abandoned and was only frequented by thugs and gangsters,” Varela recalled. “I spoke with these guys and they obliged to stay away from the kids while we were at indoor soccer field, which was a cement surface. We began to have regular practice there and were also picking up trash.”
Varela’s work was noticed by Jose Santos, a former employee of Tijuana’s’ Municipal Department of Sport. Santos informed Varela that he was the City official tasked with cleaning up that sports park. Varela offered to help as long as his groups can practice there.
“Between Mr. Santos and I, we began to work on renovating the park. I brought in players to use the facilities and he provided paint and materials from the City to fix things up,” Varela shared. “He had a tight budget but he was always hard at work.”
At the time there wasn’t a formal league in the community so Varela organized games for all age groups on Sundays which would pack the park full of neighbors from all over.
“The head of the Municipal Department of Sport saw the improvements at a soccer tournament we hosted and he was very impressed so he promised us a new turf soccer field for the sports center,” Varela said.
The construction saw some delays but was successfully completed. The City also built a new gym, and installed running water, electricity and pavement around the park as well.
“Mr. Santos and I were very proud of what we all accomplished,” Varela stated.
After years and years of applying for reentry, Varela’s waiver was accepted in 2015. He returned to the United States soon afterward marrying his longtime girlfriend Laurel almost immediately.
Later in 2015 the First Goal became formally incorporated in California as a nonprofit and has begun to make plans to operate north of the border in addition to its Tijuana operations.
In the meantime, Varela and those involved in The First Goal have run their first week-long soccer camp for children in the National City area earlier this year, and the nonprofit has bigger plans for the future.
“This year we have gotten our name out and we have gotten support from the Soccer City people,” Varela shares. “We have also grown and are looking to establish another turf pitch in Tijuana for our use and a league here in San Diego.”
Despite having his hands full with The First Goal’s growth, married life, and living north of the border, Varela keeps working and stays in touch with those he has mentored and partnered with in Tijuana.
“We’re all great friends and when the kids have questions for me I always dedicate time to them,” Varela closed. “We want to keep helping as many people as possible through The First Goal by doing good deeds because it is what fulfills Laurel and I.”