Three days a week, the middle and high school students from the Bronx school that I taught would stay after school to play soccer. Some of these kids, who were mostly black and Latino boys, loved soccer with a passion, and others had never kicked a ball before.
But they all came together because they were searching for an engaging activity to fill the void after school, and they found that a team provided a group they could be proud of having joined. Weeks earlier, many of these students would have been hanging out on the corner, getting into trouble, or simply wasting their afternoons and evenings away.
Now they were laughing, running, and playing in a safe space, without realizing it, gaining lessons from the mentoring of a coach. From this simple after-school program, South Bronx United blossomed.
The power of sport, and specifically of soccer, to bring these adolescents together was clear from the beginning. But I started to realize that soccer could provide much more than just a safe environment and youth camaraderie.
If one could effectively incorporate leadership development, mentoring, and academic support, this soccer program could truly build leaders and scholars out of youth whose parents did not attend college -- youth whose homes often lacked a filling, healthy meal and whose academic record resembled a high school dropout more than a college graduate.
The South Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the United States, with a 49 percent child poverty rate. Half of high school students drop out before graduating high school.
During after-school time, young people are most prone to get in trouble and engage in risky behaviors. They turn to gangs because they provide a support network that is otherwise absent from their lives.
It has taken four years, but South Bronx United has begun to build the right resources and people to provide the community's young people with the necessary positive social network, an impetus to prioritize their education, and access to programs that provide needed skills. With this capacity, we can make a huge impact on the future outcomes of black and Latino young men--particularly for the growing population of immigrants who grew up in cultures where soccer plays an integral role.
South Bronx United now leverages soccer to focus on two priorities in the community: 1) providing a pathway from middle school to college for young people through an intensive support network that offers mentoring, educational supports, and soccer, and 2) addressing the needs and interests of immigrant youth, which is unique to the field of sports-based youth development.
Many immigrant families and their children gravitate directly to soccer even though they often lack the knowledge and resources to access other community services. Soccer is the first thing that some young people seek when they arrive in the country. SBU is in an ideal position to leverage young people's intense passion for soccer in order to meet the needs of the growing and underserved immigrant youth population, and the South Bronx community at large.
This project's impact on black and Latino young men starts with the youth that we serve. In each of the last two years, 100 percent of the high school seniors who spent at least a year with the organization graduated and were accepted to college. This includes many young men who were the first in their families to attend college.
Ninety percent of young people who register for the comprehensive youth development program during the year stay with the program, although most initially understand little about the necessary commitment beyond the soccer component. Graduates say that the presence of caring, knowledgeable individuals provided the essential support they needed to complete high school graduation and move on to college. At the same time, they say that the draw of soccer kept them involved and coming back.
Academic outcomes improve even more for each individual when they are given the support to progress through SBU during the seven years that they move through middle school to high school, growing from boys to young men. Given the opportunity to develop and expand the organization, SBU will be able to offer the same comprehensive services to even more young people.
With the right partners, the idea for this project can expand citywide so that it has an impact beyond the South Bronx community. Most important, every child who steps onto the turf will have the opportunity to "Become a Leader and Scholar Through Soccer."
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, Ashoka Changemakers, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Young Men's Initiative in recognition of the "My Voice, Our City" competition, which aims to empower black and Latino young men ages 16-24. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. For more information about "My Voice, Our City", click here; about Ashoka Changemakers, click here; and about the Young Men's Initiative, click here.