The field was different from those Isla Horscroft played on back home in and around Chanhassen with her club, Tonka United.
In San Carlos, Nicaragua, where she was leading a soccer clinic for girls this past January, “You kick the ball and it disappears in the dust.”
But the passion for the game, she discovered, was just the same.
She had asked the girls how long they’d like to play each day. “They were like, ‘We’ll play morning to night.’ And they did.”
Horscroft, 15, organized this soccer clinic — a project toward earning her Girl Scouts Gold Award — with the help of a grant from the Ann Bancroft Foundation. The foundation, created by the Mendota Heights-raised polar explorer, provides funding to Minnesota girls to achieve their goals and gain confidence to take on leadership positions.
Past recipients of the one-time grants, which average $475, have used the money for everything from covering costs to play basketball to hiking in an Arctic wildlife refuge. The only requirement is that the girls have their own mentor to help them oversee their projects.
“Our grant is a piece of the picture,” said Sara Fenlason, executive director of the foundation.
For many recipients, winning a grant gives them the encouragement they need to raise more funds. Horscroft’s eight-day trip to Nicaragua with five of her soccer club teammates was made possible by donations she solicited and odd jobs she took on. The money she received from the Ann Bancroft Foundation covered her transportation.
“I learned that if you want to do it, you have to put in the work,” Horscroft said.
Bancroft launched the foundation in 1991 to create an educational component to a 660-mile all-women’s expedition on skis that she was leading to the South Pole. (When Bancroft completed the expedition in 1993, she became the first known woman to cross both poles.)
By 1997, she conferred with her board to refocus the foundation’s mission.
“We started having conversations about what it is I had just done,” Bancroft said. “I had gone to the North Pole in 1986 as the first woman, was feeling a need to do something bigger than myself, went off to Greenland and Antarctica with an all-women’s team, and was realizing that there was so much more work to do to write women’s history and change perceptions.”
With her board, Bancroft decided to zero in on girls — Minnesota girls in particular — and to encourage them to achieve their own dreams.
Bancroft ran the foundation as a volunteer until 2014, when Fenlason came on board.
“Seventeen years in, it was clear our work was needed more than ever,” Fenlason said. “Girls are losing confidence and falling behind boys in school. Our goal is to help girls build confidence and self-esteem, so our work is really necessary.”
Bancroft had once assumed that the foundation “would go out of business.” Instead, girls and women are still coming up against roadblocks when it comes to pursuing their passions.
“I don’t think the need is going to diminish,” Bancroft said. “For a woman who, 32 years later, is still doing expeditions and finding resistance and challenges in attitudes about what I am thinking about doing next, we’ve got much work to do.”
With Fenlason’s arrival, the foundation’s imprint immediately grew, and in its 20th anniversary year, 2017, it awarded $170,000 in grants to 355 Minnesota girls.
“For many girls, when they apply, it’s the first time they learn to advocate for themselves,” Fenlason said. “One girl said, ‘The hardest part was giving myself permission to dream.’ ”
It remains imperative to Bancroft that a high percentage of applicants receive a grant, no matter her family’s financial background.
“For me it’s always been really important that we are actually a yes in a girl’s life,” Bancroft said. “Many of our girls have already seen plenty of nos.”
Some of the applications that surprised her most over the years were one girl’s plan to learn modeling and another’s wish to take driver’s education classes.
“We simply learned to be eyes-wide-open to lots of experiences,” she said.
Horscroft’s dream began with a desire to “share a little soccer with people around the world.”
The girls she met in Nicaragua wanted so badly to play, but didn’t have the space, the equipment or the confidence to organize their own teams like the boys did.
Horscroft and her group brought used cleats, donated uniforms, and portable soccer goals, and led 16 young women, ages 12 to 20, in three days of lessons and playing, followed by a mini soccer camp for preschool kids in the village.
The language barrier was hard at first, until Horscroft realized motions could convey everything she needed.
“Soccer,” she said, “is universal.”