Yuniba Montoya was accustomed to cheering from the sidelines as her sons played soccer. Then one day her son asked: "Why don't you play sometime so you can see what it's like?"

That's all it took for Montoya and a group of fellow Latina mothers in Shakopee to move from the sidelines onto the field and start planning a league of their own. With a $4,095 grant this month from Allina Health, they've created the Esperanza Latina Soccer League, which recently took to the field for its first practice.

For Montoya, a Mexican immigrant who works at McDonald's, the grant was a godsend. She said many of her friends can't afford child care or gym memberships to get regular exercise. For some, even driving to a health club can be a challenge.

The Allina grant will help pay for day care, snacks, water and transportation, as well as coaching from Tyler Tumberg, a University of Dayton student who used to play for the Minnesota Thunder Academy.

For Allina, the grant represents another step in a three-year-old campaign to improve community health across Minnesota. Its Neighborhood Health Connection grants were launched recognizing that diet and exercise are sometimes the best way to avert chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes, which have reached epidemic proportions and drive a huge share of the nation's medical spending.

In three years, Allina has handed out nearly $700,000 to 57 organizations and local groups.

This year's projects, which ranged from public gardens to walking clubs for seniors, focus on strengthening social bonds that encourage physical activity and healthy eating, said Ruth Olkon, manager of community programs for Allina Health.

"We believe if you do things with other people, you're more likely to do them," Olkon said.

Studies show that strong social ties promote better health, such as lower blood pressure, and that a lack of social connectedness can increase stress levels and lead to poor eating and exercise habits, according to a report by Wilder Research in St. Paul.

"It is built on this idea of social connectedness," Olkon said.

A community effort

Twenty women have signed up for the Esperanza league, and 10 showed up for their first practice Thursday night, taking the field in jean shorts, sunglasses and sneakers.

Montoya said she enjoys kicking a soccer ball around the back yard of her mobile home park, where her sons often play with other kids. But this is the first time she has played on her own team.

"Aside from the exercise, we learn what soccer is, and we help our kids," she said. "They'll say, 'Look, my mom is playing; my mom is exercising.' "

Nora Galvan's son, 9-year-old Demian, plays on a traveling team with the Shakopee Soccer Association. He said his mother's announcement caught him by surprise.

"It's like the first time she's played a sport," Demian said as he kicked a ball around with friends on the next field.

The Allina grant application was the brainchild of Mary Hernandez, a multicultural liaison for the Shakopee School District, who worked with New Creation Lutheran Church in Shakopee to form the league.

Many children in the community attend the church's Esperanza summer camp, with financial support from St. Francis Regional Medical Center, an Allina affiliate. The camp is providing food, recreation and educational activities for about 100 kids Monday through Thursday this summer, for little to no cost to the families, said the Rev. Pat Simmons of New Creation.

The church didn't intend to reach out exclusively to Latino families, but the Latino community quickly filled up the space, Simmons said. Most of the families live in nearby mobile home parks, he said. The elementary school closest to the church said 42 percent of students qualified for free and reduced lunch last year.

"I see the kids losing weight and I see them more involved," Hernandez said. "It created a sense of ownership and belonging we hadn't seen before."

Learning the moves

But as the youth soccer program expanded, Simmons said, one group was being neglected: mothers.

Latina mothers in the community showed high rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. They weren't exercising, and beyond that, they were often keeping to themselves.

"There's really no league that targets adults, especially women that are out of shape," Hernandez said.

But as practice wound down last week, the moms said it was more than exercise.

"It releases you," said Gabriela Romera, a mother of four girls.

"It's our time to take a breath and be loud with other moms. It's a whole bunch of moms who really need a break."

All the moms will soon have matching neon-yellow T-shirts, as well as soccer cleats, funded in part through the Allina grant.

As the coach began dribbling drills, one mother asked if he could repeat the instructions in Spanish. But it's OK if not everyone understands the coach, said Nora Galvan.

"We help each other out," she said.

Montoya ran down the field in her jean shorts and Hollister T-shirt as the women finished a scrimmage.

She kicked the ball toward the goal, shrieking as it rolled gently into the net.

"I'm just like Neymar!" she yelled, referring to the Brazilian soccer star.

She then plopped down on the grass in front of the goal and caught her breath.

Samantha Schmidt • 612-673-4641