Urban Initiatives Soccer Program Aims To Keep Kids In Tough Chicago Schools On Track

"Everybody in Cabrini knew Troy," said 13-year-old Thomas Durr, an eighth grader at Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts. "He had his act together, he had a job, he had a son, he had a lot of stuff going for him."

But none of that stopped Troy Cameron, 22, who used to coach Durr in Chicago's Urban Initiatives soccer program, from being gunned down on January 20 at a Walgreen's in River North. The perpetrator was reportedly a disgruntled former employee of the store, where Cameron worked as a security guard.

The shooting was a reminder that Chicago is all too often home to senseless violence. Before he died, however, Cameron left behind a legacy of hope for Durr, who is now acting as a "mentor coach" in the same soccer league.

Begun by two substitute teachers in 2003, the Urban Initiatives soccer league has now blossomed to serve 4,665 Chicago Public School students at 21 schools. The non-profit program is privately supported, said co-founder Dan Isherwood, and has managed to expand despite the effects of the Great Recession. On Wednesday, it will be one of many Chicago-area non-profits taking part in WomenOnCall's 6th Annual Meet & Match.

The cornerstone of Urban Initiatives is what the group calls its "work to play" program. Kids practice soccer before and after school, waking up as early as 7 AM and then staying late. An hour of exercise is followed by 10 or 15 minute discussions of living and eating right -- not bringing Cheetos to practice, for starters. Every week, teachers evaluate whether the second through fourth graders who make up the league's players have behaved well in class and tried hard to improve. If they haven't, they don't get to play.

The thinking, said Isherwood, was that "if they have a program that they love so much, they'll be more willing to do their work in the classroom."

Urban Initiatives coaches encounter tougher obstacles than many of their peers in the suburbs. Not only are the city's schools and streets sites of routine violence, but the Chicago Housing Authority's "Plan for Transformation" has uprooted many students from their homes in housing projects. The plan tore down some of the city's infamous high-rise housing, but low-rise alternatives have been slow to replace them.

Isherwood taught at Byrd Academy in Cabrini Green as the housing plan got underway. "Their families had been there for generations, and they had deep roots in the community. And there was also that sense of sadness about losing that community," he said. "A lot of the kids were forced to go into another neighborhood's school, where there was already a lot of tension."

For some kids, the soccer program has served as something of a haven. "Mentor coaches" like Cameron -- kids from fifth through eighth grades who helped out with the team -- are part of the reason. Cameron, who pitched in at Byrd Academy in the program's early years, was "just fun, like pure fun, because he had energy that would make you smile, and just make you want to play more. Like he would do this bicycle kick," Durr said.

The daily reality of trauma and violence "feels very commonplace for the kids, unfortunately," said Parker Swanson, a 26-year-old teacher at the Morton School of Excellence on the West Side who coaches in the program. He has used soccer as an outlet to teach kids to "take responsibility for our own actions instead of blaming someone else."

Another obstacle is the perception some students have that soccer is a "white" sport. But the African teams in the 2010 World Cup helped shatter that stereotype. Swanson said he has also used the sport's strangeness as an opportunity for learning: an appearance by the Japanese team, for example, led to a discussion of climate in the Pacific. "The biggest benefit of the fact that it is soccer is the exposure to something that's completely foreign to them," Swanson said.

Swanson has also used trips around town to broaden his students' horizons. He remembered taking them to the Northwestern campus for a game. "These kids all live in Chicago, and most of them have lived in Chicago all their lives, and some of these kids were seeing Lake Michigan for the first time. Some of them thought Lake Michigan was an ocean."

Durr, the eighth grader, said the reason soccer worked for him it has any magical qualities that football (which he also plays) or baseball don't. The key was the communal attitude that players, mentors, and teacher-coaches brought. "It's because you're around people who want to do better," Durr said.

On January 28, Urban Initiatives held its annual "Soccer Ball" fundraiser. The program awarded Durr its Troy Cameron Mentor Coach Award, a symbol of the connection between the two. Durr, who is now in the same grade Cameron was when he started in the program, will attend high school soon. (Don't ask him where, since the many adults nagging him about it are "starting to bother me.") But before he does, the award serves as a reminder of what he's accomplished since kindergarten.

"To just receive something like that is amazing, because you know you're doing good, and other people know that too," said Durr. "I'm going to be off to high school next year, but I still want to mentor the team."

Learn more about Women on Call and other Chicago nonprofits here.