This summer, the attention of soccer fans around the world focused on the 32 teams playing on the plush green fields around Brazil during the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
But for Heidelberg University women's soccer player Christina Neal, the most important soccer field during the summer of 2014 was a dusty vacant lot just north of the Rio Grande.
A rising senior, Neal was part of Heidelberg's annual service trip to the Texas-Mexico border. The group of students, faculty and alumni volunteer with ARISE – A Resource in Serving Equality – a non-profit grassroots organization that serves low-income Mexican immigrant families.
During the semester-long class that preceded the trip, Profe – Professor Cindy Lepeley's affectionate nickname – warned the first-time volunteers that the accommodations were not luxurious.
"My bed was a thin foam mattress on top of a sheet of plywood," said Neal, who serves as president of Heidelberg's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. "The plywood rested on cinder blocks. It was certainly an eye-opening experience on the first day of our trip."
Split between three ARISE locations, Heidelberg's group planned craft activities with children in the morning and afternoon excursions and activities for the teenagers in the evening. They also served elderly members in the community.
Neal's group was stationed in Muñiz, a Texas community with a population of almost 1,500 residents. In 2010, Muñiz had the lowest per-household income in the state, and one of the lowest in the nation.
One muggy afternoon, a pick-up game of soccer formed. Neal, the leading goal scorer for the Student Princes in 2013, was one of the only females to line up for the picking of teams. After being one of the last selections, she was told that most of the girls opt not to play because the boys were more skillful.
Neal, a native Tennessean was determined to show her talent. But before she could do so, she had to learn the ground rules of the field.
"The first thing I noticed was that there were no nets and no lines. The ground was dirt and there were rocks all over the place," said Neal. "The goals were between fence posts at both ends of the lot, which even had a few trees on it."
After Neal's team won the first game by a wide margin, a boy named Chilango complimented her on her abilities. Almost as if she had passed an initiation, the other players began to teach Neal some Spanish soccer terminology and showed her some of their favorite moves.
Heidelberg's student-athletes are active with the ARISE program because it affords the chance to experience other cultures without cutting into their commitment to their academic and athletic endeavors. Neal was one of five student-athletes on the 2014 trip. Marki Hogle and Summer Hunter-Kysor of the tennis team and cheerleaders Charlotte Cenkus and Nicki Brose joined Neal in south Texas. In all, there were nearly 30 people in Heidelberg's group this year.
"It was such a great experience and a wonderful way to hone my Spanish skills," said Neal. "We're only down there for a week, but the impact that the trip created is still with me."
Neal's service trip to Muñiz was part of a busy summer. She also played for the Columbus Eagles of the Women's Premier Soccer League, a summer league that is mainly comprised of college athletes.