While their journeys to the Club are vastly different, Valerie Holland and Maricela Ramos both joined the Houston Dynamo and Houston Dash with one common goal in mind: giving back to help others. Now, they have used their work as members of the Community Relations department and Dynamo Charities to help the Houston community however they can, while shaping future generations of Dynamo and Dash fans.
Originally from Colorado, Holland grew up thinking she was going to be a teacher and help shape the youth of America, but then an internship with Kroenke Sports and Entertainment gave her a taste of Community Relations and an opportunity to pair her desire to impact kids with her passion for sports. The combination was a perfect fit, and Holland was hired as a Customer Service Specialist, before being promoted to Coordinator of Community Relations for the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, Colorado Rapids and Colorado Mammoth.
In 2014, Holland joined the Dynamo in the Premium Sales department before returning to her passion as the Senior Manager of Corporate Communications and Community Relations in January 2016. She has since been promoted into her current role of Director of Community Relations and Dynamo Charities.
“For me, this job is exactly what I have always wanted,” Holland explained. “I was able to build a Community Relations department from the ground up and try new ideas throughout the process. We have tried some ideas that worked, and we have tried some ideas that didn’t work, but the learning through it all has been the most fun. And now, we are really getting to see what we have been able to accomplish, and where we have made impacts, which is huge.”
For Ramos, the desire to give back mirrors that of Holland, but hits much closer to home. Born and raised in Houston, Ramos knew in high school that she wanted to work in sports but didn’t know how. After she turned 18, she started volunteering with the Dynamo, and continued to do so throughout her time at the University of Houston, which ended with an opportunity to upgrade her role at the Club.
“One of my college graduation requirements was to complete an internship,” Ramos said, “so I applied for the Dynamo Charities internship, and not only did I get it, but I was lucky enough to get hired as a full-time employee in 2016. Plus, I always knew I wanted to give back to my city in some sort of capacity. Houston is my hometown, and I love it a lot, so I just wanted to give back however I could. Thankfully, this job allows me to do that.”
When the Community Relations department was reorganized under Holland’s leadership in 2016, the two women were still trying out different tactics and ways to engage with the community. According to Ramos, it was Dynamo legend Ricardo Clark who was instrumental in helping them get some of their first events organized.
“I remember when I first started that Ricardo Clark would tell me what school he would want to go to, and I would get it all scheduled for him,” Ramos recalled. “Some of the schools we visited were in the Third Ward, which are predominantly African-American and not very involved in soccer, but when I saw the kids’ connection to Rico and the love of the game that he shared with them, that really drove home the impact that we could make in the community.”
Now, the two have created a system that works best for them and allows the Club to begin to maximize its potential in the community. Holland focuses more on the creation and building of events, while Ramos plans and executes every event, each complementing the other in an effort to take Dynamo Charities to new heights.
“In 2017, we started keeping track of how many kids we visited throughout the year,” Ramos explained. “That year we visited 3,000 kids. In 2018, Hurricane Harvey affected some of our visits and we only got to see 2,000 kids. But last year, we really got it together and impacted 10,000 kids thanks to the Soccer Starts at Home program and all of our school visits. We are still learning as we go, but this shows what we are capable of, and in ten years we hope to see those same kids come out to a game as a season ticket member.”
Thankfully, the Club’s Kicks for Kids program helps make sure that kids visited by a Dynamo GOALS event don’t have to wait ten years to attend a match. At the end of every Dynamo GOALS visit, each student is given a voucher for a ticket to an upcoming Dynamo match, which gives them the opportunity to witness the player or coach they just met at their school perform at BBVA Stadium, and gives Holland and Ramos a chance to experience one of their favorite aspects of the job.
“One of the best things for me is the feeling of knowing you made enough of an impact on the kids that they remember the Dynamo and our visit to their school for years to come,” Holland said. “The fact that the kids remember who we are and what we did during the visit is just incredible.”
“It’s absolutely amazing,” Ramos echoed. “For the U.S. Open Cup Final in 2018, we brought out nearly every school we had visited that year, and I was down on the field when I heard my name being called, so I turned around and there were like 50 little kids that we had visited earlier in the year. It was really cool that they not only got to experience the Final and see us win the trophy, but that they remembered the visit, too. It meant a lot to me to know we had made a lasting impression on them.”
The job doesn’t come without its challenges though, especially when they visit a school where the kids not only don’t know who the Dynamo are, but don’t even really know what soccer is or how it’s played. In those instances, that’s where Holland and Ramos say the credit goes to the players and coaches who come on the visit.
“Doing non-profit and community work can be super tough sometimes,” Holland admitted. “However, I think being paired with players and having the team backing you up makes it a bit more fun for everyone. When we walk into a school and tell kids that Boniek García is going to talk to them, whether they know exactly who he is or not, they know he’s a professional soccer player and get excited.”
One aspect of their job that Holland and Ramos both thoroughly enjoy but say that most people don’t really think of is helping players and coaches get their charitable ideas up and running. For instance, the two were instrumental in the creation of Ricardo Clark’s Positive Passes Program and Andrew Wenger’s First Pass Initiative.
“To see the players find their passion for giving back is super fun,” Holland explained. “Three years ago, we both helped Andrew Wenger start his First Pass Initiative. For our first event, we went to a Christian rec center in the Third Ward so that Andrew could teach kids how to play soccer. We helped him find coaches and staff to volunteer to go out twice a week for four weeks and lead practices for these kids to keep learning the game. At the end of the program, we brought all the kids out to a game, and I will never forget the signs that the kids had made for every single player and coach who had visited and helped them learn soccer. All because one player decided he wanted to help give back.”
Even after Wenger left the Club, Ramos continued the event at another school where most of the students were immigrants and knew what soccer was but were unfamiliar with the Dynamo. So, to help the students relate to what they were being told, Ramos started bringing along some of the team’s international players to speak with the kids. It is the players’ willingness to help in situations like these that the two say make the Dynamo one of the most accessible teams in Houston.
“If a school reaches out to us about anything, we will find a way to do it,” Holland stated. “Maricela will find a way to get to their school with a player, coach, or whoever is needed, to give the kids that experience. And we can do that because our players love it and the organization recognizes the importance of these visits. They understand they have the opportunity to influence others and make an impact on people’s lives, and they want to do that.”
With four years of experience under their belt now, the duo are ready to help the Club continue to grow its fanbase even more and lay claim as an organization that truly makes an effort to connect and give back to the community that it calls home. To do that though, the two women make sure to always keep the main goal in mind.
“From both a personal and organizational standpoint, we strive to inspire as many kids as possible so that they know they can do whatever they want, and we want to be a part of that,” Holland said. “Whether it’s seeing a kid a year after a visit and seeing their love for the game, or hearing that one of the players said something to them that helped them with some aspect of their life, just to know you made a difference. That is what the organization and both of us want.”