June 2020 / grace tells 08

"A mom with 200 kids"

Sonaida Angel

By: Grace&Us, Images by Edwin Smulders

Sonaida Angel has, apart from her own son Noel, another two-hundred other sons and daughters. She’s devoted to taking care of the boys and girls from soccer club Lesley Boys, which she founded together with her husband Lesley. When he passed away, she decided to continue their work by herself.

On May 19th, 2019, I was in a sports hall in Amsterdam, with a group of ten 12 and 13-year-old boys. They were nervous: in 30 minutes they would be playing the deciding match for the championship. I had known these little guys for about seven years. Just like a lot of other kids from our neighborhood, they came to us to play soccer. Little boys then, grown boys now. I watched the team waiting at the sidelines and thought about Lesley. About how he had worked towards this moment with these boys. It had been years of training, games, arranging outfits, and sorting out other practicalities.

 – “We’d become the Dutch national champion. I looked at the team, cheering. They’d done it for Lesley.”

Ten months earlier, Lesley passed away. We all felt his absence, especially in that moment. It was a mix of sadness and a massive drive to win. I thought about all the times he had cheered for these guys, motivated them, helped them. He was like a magician when it came to tension: he always knew how to make it disappear, always had a joke ready. I glanced over to the hunched shoulders of the little players next to me. ‘If you don’t stand up straight right now, I will toss you in there, one by one.’ I nodded in the direction of the basketball net on the wall. It worked. They laughed, pulled their shoulders back, stood up straight. They asked for water, and the captain looked up to me: ‘Miss, we’re going to do our best.’ An hour later, he was holding the trophy. We were the Dutch national champions. I looked at the team celebrating: they had done this for Lesley.

 – “Lesley was an extroverted, funny, and incredibly sweet guy. We talked all night, and he never really left after that.”

The beginning of Lesley Boys

I had met Lesley twenty-five years before that, in my local supermarket. A beautiful, tall, kind man. Someone who knew what he wanted. He saw me carrying two heavy bags, approached me, and took them out of my hands. ‘I’ll carry these home for you,’ he said. I was speechless. I always knew what to say, but now I could only stare into these gorgeous brown eyes and nod my head. When we got home, he even put all of the groceries away. There was this spark between us, and I felt completely comfortable with him. When we were drinking coffee a few moments later, it truly felt as if we had known each other for years. Lesley was an extroverted guy, funny, and incredibly sweet. We sat and talked for the whole evening, and he never really left after that. The fact that I had a seven-year-old son wasn’t an issue for him – on the contrary. He loved it. ‘Finally, someone to play soccer with,’ he said. I guess that was also when Lesley Boys really started.

Soccer on the playground

Lesley took Noel to the field behind our flat, for a bit of kicking the ball. My son was taking judo classes and never really was interested in soccer. But Lesley’s enthusiasm was contagious. He taught Noel all these tactics and tricks, and soon he was on the field every day. Lesley worked at KLM, and when he got home from work, Noel was already there waiting for him, with a ball ready. The kids in the neighborhood quickly started joining, and they brought friends, brothers, classmates. Every afternoon new kids showed up. Lesley and his big heart welcomed all of them. One night we got to talk about how that field was getting too small, and how it would be better to have different teams so they all could play properly. Lesley didn’t hesitate: why not start an actual soccer club, with teams? At first, I was skeptical: I thought he wanted a lot, too much maybe. But he kept going: in a neighborhood like this one, the Bijlmer in Amsterdam, there wasn’t much else to do for the kids, and they would just be hanging around on the streets. He thought that with some structure in their soccer practice, everyone could learn to play – in a fun way. He was driven. He didn’t see any obstacles. He only saw the potential in those kids.

 – “The first four years we didn’t go on holiday. We used Lesley’s vacation money for Lesley Boys”

The club’s foundation

We got to work. Playing around on a field is one thing, but founding a complete soccer club is another. We let everyone join and didn’t ask for any money from the kids or their parents. We knew a lot of families were struggling, and we wanted every kid to have the opportunity to join, regardless of their parents’ situation. We still don’t ask for money. Everyone is welcome. In those first four years, we skipped our summer holidays. Lesley put his vacation money in the club. He got his trainers certificate from the KNVB, so he was able to properly train the boys, and I took care of everything off-field. I approached possible sponsors, asked for donations – whether that was money, clothes, shoes, or anything else we could use. To play in the KNVB competition, you need your own field. We didn’t have that. Lesley’s solution was simple: ‘Then we play indoors.’ So, we turned into an indoor soccer club. He only ever saw possibilities. There wasn’t the least bit of doubt or hesitation. If he for some reason couldn’t do one thing, he would just find a way around it, and do it anyway.

In 2018 he got into an accident at work. For months on end, he was in and out of the hospital. He didn’t recover properly. Doctors assumed it was the accident, but eventually, we found out it was cancer. His body was done. On August 5th 2018, he passed away. I was sad, broken. The man who had given me so much joy in my life was gone. A week after his funeral, I was back on the field behind our house. It felt strange being there without him. It didn’t really feel as if he wasn’t there.

 – “We never thought about how to continue. We just knew we were going to. No question: we would keep going.”

It’ll be okay, always

The club has grown, and so have the kids. Players from way back then have turned into coaches themselves. My son included. After Lesley’s death, it wasn’t even a question if we would go on. Of course we would. We have 200 boys and girls playing at our club. I always joke that I’m a mother to two-hundred kids. A lot of them come from broken families or don’t have a stable home situation. We teach them more than the game of soccer: be on time, have your stuff ready, shake hands when you come in and look someone in the eye when they’re talking to you. I teach them about life, not just soccer. I check how they are doing. If they don’t feel well, they won’t play well. If things are tight at home, I will get them something to eat. If their shoes are too small, I will get new ones. If they need a hug, I’ll give them one.

 – “I’d love to have it all by tomorrow, but I know I have to be patient. And that’s okay, because Lesley also taught me that. He always said: ‘As long as you keep believing, it will be okay, always.”

My dream is to get all the 6000 kids in this neighborhood to exercise. The first milestone will be 500 kids at the club. It’s not going as fast as I would want. We need a bigger field, and the city isn’t really cooperating. It was our dream to let the kids play soccer, and then eat together afterward. Something so simple, but for the kids around here, it would be an important foundation. I’d love to have it all by tomorrow, but I know I need to be patient. And that’s okay. Because that’s also something Lesley taught me. He always said: ‘As long as you keep believing, it will be okay, always.’

Sonaida Angel met Lesley Verveer in the early nineties. In 1994 the couple founded Lesley Boys, a soccer school for kids living in the Bijlmer, Amsterdam. They managed to grow the club significantly, and in 2015 it became an official indoor soccer club. In 2018, Lesley passed away. One year later, Sonaida coached one of their teams to the Dutch National Championship, which they won. Anouk about Sonaida: ‘Sometimes you meet people and you instantly know they are special. When I first met her and saw how she handles the boys, something happened. I simply had to get to know her better. Sonaida is an angel, but a tough one, because she’s in charge at Lesley Boys and is a ‘mum’ to 200 kids.’ Sonaida lives in the Bijlmer in Amsterdam and has a son who, apart from his work at KLM, is also a coach and board member at Lesley Boys.