Brothers fight hunger with soccer camp

On a recent trip to the grocery store, Kelly Hagemann of Concord loaded up so many cans of food into a cardboard box that she couldn't lift the box out of her cart into her truck.

But she says she has to stock up. She has to send her kids to soccer camp.

Her sons will be hitting the field this summer at Kicking 4 Hunger, a local youth soccer camp in which participants pay by donating nonperishable food items.

Brothers Gabriel Whaley, a 20-year-old college student, and Gideon Whaley, a 17-year-old rising senior at the N.C. School of Science and Math, serve as camp co-directors.

Gabriel Whaley of Midland created the camp in 2006 when he was a rising high school junior. It started out as a summer project to fulfill his desire to help others and do what he enjoys - playing soccer.

"Our parents had a hard time sending us to camp," he said. "It was so expensive."

The idea to create a camp that collects cans rather than an expensive fee was a hit. During the first summer, they had about 80 campers.

"It's really taken off from there," said Gabriel Whaley.

Last year, more than 150 kids signed up, and they collected 2,727 canned items, which were donated to Cooperative Christian Ministry in Concord. One year they collected close to 5,000 cans.

The Whaley brothers have delivered pallets stacked with food to the Cooperative Christian Ministry's food pantry, where they watched needy families go in and out as they unloaded the cans.

"You realize there's definitely a need," said Gabriel Whaley.

Kicking 4 Hunger will hold two camps for children ages 6-12 this summer in Cabarrus County. The first camp, held at Stallings Road Park in Harrisburg, will be July 12-14. The second camp will be July 15-17 at Bethel Elementary School in Midland.

There is no set number of cans required from campers. They just bring what they can, if they can bring anything at all.

Hagemann was the first person this year to sign up her two sons, 9-year-old Jake and 7-year-old Sam.

In 2008, she noticed signs posted outside Bethel Elementary School advertising a free soccer camp. Jake had never played soccer, and he wanted to give it a try.

"Your first thought is: It's a free soccer camp. How good can it be?" she said. "The answer is, it's awesome."

When she dropped her kids off for the first day of camp, Hagemann sat and watched. She was so impressed that she went to the grocery store later that day and bought $50 worth of canned food for each of her sons to donate.

And when Jake played in his first soccer game outside of camp, his team took on a talented goalie who blocked all of the shots coming toward his goal - or at least, nearly all of them.

"One shot went it," said Hagemann. "And that was Jake's."

She praised the Whaley brothers, who her sons call Coach Gabe and Coach Gideon.

"I just think what they do on and off the field is really incredible," she said.

Gabriel Whaley said some of the campers' parents have told him that they've sent their kids to expensive soccer camps but the kids enjoyed Kicking 4 Hunger more.

"It's more than just a soccer camp," he said.

He said the difference between their camp and others is the volunteers. The camp's coaches are mostly teenage soccer players from across the state. Many of them are the Whaley brothers' classmates from the N.C. School of Science and Math.

"They come because they want to help," said Gabriel Whaley.

They see some of the same faces every year. And when former campers age out, many ask if they can help out as volunteers.

Whaley said he began receiving e-mails in April from people asking if he'd hold the camp again this year.

"We've established a tradition where our community expects Kicking 4 Hunger," he said.

The camp is intended for beginners but designed so that more advanced players can still learn and have fun. The coaches lead campers in games to teach them skills such as dribbling, passing and playing defense. Then they divide the campers up into teams to compete against each other. The teams with the most wins play in the championship game on the last day of camp.

But at the end of the day, the emphasis is always on helping others.

"You see all that food there?" Gabriel Whaley tells campers at the end of the camp, pointing to the canned food. "It's going to help a lot of people."

"I think the kids get it."

When Gabriel Whaley leaves Cabarrus County to study chemistry at UNC Chapel Hill this fall, he plans to organize a similar camp in the Triangle area.

But he wants the Kicking 4 Hunger camps to continue in Cabarrus. He hopes to make the camp a nonprofit that can continue on without him and his brother someday.

"The idea is to keep doing it as long as we can," he said.