The popularity of soccer may be at an all-time high in Atlanta, but thanks to the mission of a local nonprofit, the sport has been helping youth in underserved areas learn valuable life skills and forge friendships for decades.
Soccer in the Streets, founded in 1989, works to empower youth through soccer training, small-group classroom sessions, mentoring and employability programs — all completely free for those involved.
“In essence, we are about giving kids a better opportunity in life and soccer creates a good vehicle for us to do that,” said Executive Director Phil Hill.
The nonprofit operates programs around metro Atlanta, including the Westside, College Park, East Point and Clarkston.
Trained coaches and junior assistants work with elementary, middle and high school aged youth, training them through vigorous physical activity while working to impart the valuable life lessons and skills also at the heart of the programs.
Training sessions and game days occur weekly during the school year, with occasional one-day tournaments and clinics as well. While more relaxed when school is out, free summer camps are offered, with coaches from Leeds Beckett University in the U.K. volunteering to train kids this year.
The programming is also focused on teaching character based traits through soccer play. For example, during a training session focused on learning to pass the ball, kids learn about how that relates to decision making in life, Hill said.
For older kids, employment-based programs have also been rolled out, helping them not only learn skills necessary for getting a job, but also getting them actual work. Through the referee training program, kids can become certified as referees and begin to make money during weekend games.
“Some of these youth have a lot of challenges and maybe are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders and [...] it is really rewarding to see kids who do not have access or resources be able to participate and have fun and just be kids,” Chief Program Officer Jill Robbins said.
Soccer equity is a term that has been coined to bring the same quality-of-life to communities that have not had the opportunity historically, Robbins said.
“Youth soccer leagues are pretty common, but in some places they do not exist, so we want to create that for families,” Robbins said. “Eventually, these families can become the operators and this can become part of the fabric of their communities.”
In fall of 2016, an elementary program launched in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, Hill said. Kids from third to fifth grade play after school two days a week with the intent to not only motivate kids and help them find an outlet, but also to further engage parents.
“Up until a couple of years ago, soccer was seen as a sport without a context in many of these neighborhoods, but that is changing now,” Hill said. “There is this thought that African-American communities do not want soccer, but they do and we want to send a message on not excluding communities.”
While some of the youth the nonprofit works with have no soccer DNA, others — like in Clarkston — have soccer history, but face the same challenges of access to play. In Clarkston, the nonprofit has partnered with the Clarkston Community center as well as local elementary, middle and high schools.
“A lot of these kids in Clarkston who have come here from desperate situations, soccer also serves as a universal language for them that helps them assimilate and find friends,” Hill said. “But they lack investment and are locked out of the typically high-priced soccer system, so we have some strong programs over there.”
In partnership with MARTA and Atlanta United, the nonprofit has also created the world’s first soccer field inside a station with its Five Points MARTA Station soccer field. Thousands of youth and adults have played there since it opened last November, Hill said.
“Soccer was designed as a middle-to-upper class sport for kids with money, and [...] we thought this would go great with MARTA given that a lack of transport is one of the biggest challenges for many in regards to playing soccer,” Hill said.
The Five Points field was just the start of an ongoing program that hopes to open nine additional fields inside city MARTA stations, creating a network and an eventual transit soccer league.
Throughout the year, the nonprofit hosts a number of fundraising tournaments to help support their ongoing programming. These range from a black-tie event that, despite the dress code, invites casual players of all kinds to the Champions League, which is a more competitive event, Robbins said.
In July, they will host the internationally-focused Nations Cup, which features Atlanta area players from the business community who also identify with a home country elsewhere in the world.
In just the past 18 months, the nonprofit has worked with more than 6,500 youth, according to Hill.
For more information, including how to get involved, visit www.soccerstreets.org.