There are plenty of youth soccer charitable causes, especially here in New York City. But the work done by one of them, America SCORES, has really impressed me. As a result, I’ve written a lot about the program and events run by the local affiliate, America SCORES New York, of this national organization. And the more I see of what they do, the more I feel compelled to share it with my fellow soccer fans, as it’s a great cause should you choose to support one.
For those unfamiliar with them, America SCORES works within the public school system, helping empower students in many of America’s most impoverished urban communities through a magical blend of soccer, poetry, and community service. Their free after-school program teaches boys and girls to work together as a team while also learning to express themselves individually, tapping into their own creativity – physically, emotionally, and intellectually. By fostering teamwork and building self-esteem, the program helps these kids lead healthier lives, become more engaged students, and act as agents of change in their communities.
Locally, America SCORES New York works with two elementary schools in Harlem: PS 192 & PS 325. Kids participating in this program receive 10-times the amount of exercise as their classmates, which is critical given that childhood obesity and diabetes have reached epidemic proportions in the neighborhood. Nearly 11 percent of Harlem residents have diabetes, with adolescents making up almost half of those cases. And given that 48 percent of Harlem school children in grades K-8 are currently obese or overweight, those diabetes rates will continue to climb at an alarming rate without the help of programs like America SCORES New York.
In addition to learning to play soccer, these kids also engage in 60 hours of poetry workshops during the fall semester. This helps improve their creative and expository writing skills, and fosters a more positive attitude towards school and academics in general. The culmination of those poetry workshops is the annual America SCORES Poetry SLAM!
In the spring, the focus turns from poetry to their community. The teams each pick a service-learning project for which they examine challenges faced by their local community and explore possible solutions. They then present what they’ve learned to the rest of the kids in the program, often times through a hands-on demonstration or some other type of creative performance. This is called the annual America SCORES SHOUT! Day of Action.
America SCORES SHOUT!
At the end of this school year, I had the pleasure of attending America SCORES New York’s SHOUT! Day of Action. Joining a pleasant group of local Starbucks volunteers, I walked around the classroom, listening to children explaining their team’s project. One of the boys teams focused on the cycle of violence in their community. The other looked at bullying in school. One of the girls teams focused on empowerment, specifically looking at how participating in sports benefits young girls. The other undertook a gardening project on school grounds, developing a better understanding of the environment and how to protect it.
Boys will be boys (violence and intimidation) and girls will be girls (growth and empowerment). But each team taught me a little something that day. For example, violence through the eyes of a young kid can mean anything from the attacks on 9/11 to a mugging around the corner. And they weren’t just concerned about criminals. They also examined the role that police and other authority figures can play in the cycle of violence in neighborhoods like Harlem.
Both boys teams presented their projects through poetry performances, which might seem unusual unless you appreciate the poetic expression commonly known as rapping. Some of the verses about bullying were quite clever and downright funny. Before the performance, I spotted a few of these verses posted on a bulletin board in the corridor, where everyone in the school could appreciate their playful wisdom.
The girls teams were kind enough to take us outside for their presentations. One team walked us through their little garden, showing us the work they had done to prepare it, the plants they had planted, and the care they have given them. They also talked about the environment, something you don’t see that much of in the concrete jungle they call Harlem. And for those who might find kids gardening a tad mundane, consider that this is the first time some of them ever planted anything – or even used a garden hose.
Just as things with that garden hose were starting to get out of hand, we went over to the field – the Jacob Schiff Soccer Field at 138th Street & Amsterdam Avenue, which is adjacent to the two schools (both schools are crowded into one old building) – for the other presentation on girls sports. This team selected their project after observing 73 boys participating in sports activities one afternoon but only 12 girls – a striking imbalance.
This team demonstrated the games they taught younger girls – grades K-2 – on the playground, almost like a mini-Olympics aimed at introducing them to the joy of sports. They also explained to these younger girls that sports can be fun and healthy, which is an important message at any age (and undoubtedly will lead to more recruits for the soccer team!).
After running their classmates through these various games (I abstained, as I’m known to get a little too competitive at these things), I asked one of the young ladies how her classmates fared compared to the younger girls they had worked with. Without hesitation, she said that the youngsters were far more cooperative and listened better. The honesty of youth!
As with all good things, the event wrapped up with soccer. This was the last day of soccer for the school year, so the kids split up into teams – wearing, as usual, whatever they wore to school that day (no Messi jerseys or Mercurial Vapors here) – and took to the field.
America SCORES New York runs drills and scrimmages using half of the Jacob Schiff Field, playing from 3:00-4:45 PM each day of the week during the school year, with Fridays being their game day. Its instructors – which include a few staff members along with some of the teachers, all of whom operate under a national set of standards – serve as coaches and referees. The action on the field isn’t always pretty, but the passion is abundant – from each and every kid.
Turf Wars in Harlem
Now here is where an upbeat story about a local charity doing genuine good in their community takes a dark, ugly turn. Despite the field being adjacent to these public schools, the schools don’t control the field after 3:00 PM. It’s owned and operated by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation and therefore subject to the Parks Department’s permitting process. The West Side Soccer League actually owns the permit for the field starting at 4:15 on Fridays, as they do to a large number of fields around Manhattan. A recreational league that serves more than 4,000 boys and girls ages 5-18, West Side Soccer helped pay to renovate Jacob Schiff Field with artificial turf in 2001.
Whether or not West Side Soccer has a permit for the field on the other days of the week is a mystery, because for some strange reason the Parks Department won’t disclose who owns what permits. Equally strange is the rule that you cannot apply for a permit to use the field for training or practice, which means America SCORES New York could not apply for a permit even if one was available. And once an organization owns a permit, it’s theirs until they fail to renew it.
The two organizations have maintained a peaceful coexistence over the years until this day (America SCORES has been running its program there for the past three years without incident). West Side Soccer told the folks from America SCORES New York that they would have to vacate the field by 4:15 PM – cutting their program short by 40 percent – or they would call the cops on them.
America SCORES New York had cleared the field by 4:15 PM, as requested. And that’s when the kids from West Side Soccer started showing up. At 4:42 PM, an 11-aside game kicked off between two West Side Soccer girls teams using most of the field. Alongside it, other instructors from West Side Soccer ran their Friday “soccer skills clinic” for a handful of children, most of whom were older siblings of the America SCORES kids. But seeing five or six kids doing drills once a week seems like a token gesture towards the needs of the community when compared to the comprehensive, research-driven, award-winning program run by America SCORES.
Despite America SCORES New York’s compliance with their request, West Side Soccer did in fact call the police on the charity program. Fortunately NYC Park Manager Ray Acosta was on-hand and did a masterful job of mediating the dispute. Still, it was a sad moment for NYC soccer. And having just listened to the school children’s presentation about the cycle of violence in their Harlem community, I knew these cops had far better things to do than settle turf wars over a soccer field.
The Right to Play
It would be easy for me to paint this as a David vs. Goliath story. Looking at the kids who showed up for the West Side Soccer recreational game, none of them looked like they were Harlem residents. But this is more complicated than predominantly white families from the relatively affluent Upper West Side traveling up to Harlem to toss the predominantly minority kids from Harlem off a field adjacent to their public elementary school.
The fact of the matter is that West Side Soccer rightfully owns the permit to that field. One could question how and why they have permits to so many fields, and why the permitting process allows residents from one community to control the rights to use a field in another – especially when you consider the disparity between those two communities. But West Side Soccer does have the legal right to use that field.
Now whether or not West Side Soccer has the ethical right to that field is a question open for debate. They have told America SCORES New York that they must move their youth soccer program elsewhere. But where? Jacob Schiff Field is literally adjacent to the schools in which the program operates. Even if they could find another field that’s available at that time, how would they be able to transport these elementary school children to and from there? And shouldn’t local parks serve local residents first and foremost?
It’s reminiscent of the Battle for Randall’s Island. Many of the elite private schools in New York City donated to renovate the numerous fields on Randall’s Island, where they now practice and play their games. But this pushed out a lot of the other constituents (many from Harlem and the Bronx) who had been using those fields – most of whom could not afford to donate for field renovations, let alone to send their kids to an elite private school. Of course Randall’s Island is different in that no one lives there, whereas the kids in the America SCORES New York program all live around Jacob Schiff Field.
America SCORES New York has been trying to reach some sort of compromise with West Side Soccer over the past two years, but now it seems they are being kicked off for good. I am hoping that this is not the end to it, as it might just be the end to one of the most effective charitable youth soccer programs in the city. I am sure the folks who run West Side Soccer are good, decent people, working hard to spread the game in this city. I am also sure that if they – and the parents of the kids who play in West Side Soccer – had a better understanding of what America SCORES does for these kids, they’d be just as eager to find some sort of compromise where everyone has a place to play the beautiful game.
The only upside to this ugliness is that battles over pitches show just how popular soccer has become in this country. I’m passionate about girls soccer, and I’m glad to see West Side Soccer fielding so many girls teams. But the empowerment presentation by the young girls from America SCORES New York illustrating the importance of girls sports in a community like Harlem really hit home. And this, Harlem, is their home. Considering how little some of these kids have, are we really going to take that field away from them?