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Feature Wed Jun 16 2010

America SCORES: Community Program Builds New Heroes

americascores.jpgWhile sports stars are being made all over the globe as the 2010 World Cup kicks off, there is another soccer organization that has established itself here in Chicago with heroes of its own. America SCORES, a not-for-profit organization that works closely with at-risk youth on Chicago's West Side, uses the sport as one of its three focal points in enriching lives of its fledgling athletes. With the goal of keeping kids healthy, educated and safe, SCORES focuses on enriching the minds, bodies and souls of children throughout the city. The organization uses an innovative combination of soccer, poetry and community service to keep school children in grades three through eight active both personally and within their communities.

By combining exercise through soccer, self expression through poetry, and self enrichment though community service learning, America SCORES strives to instill its three core values in their students -- teamwork, leadership and commitment. According to Heather Walles, the deputy director of America SCORES Chicago, the program uses the three disciplines to round out a complimentary curriculum that supplements the students education. Soccer, she tells me, is the "carrot" that draws students interest in the program. In addition to keeping the children active, soccer serves as the means in which children are enticed to learn creative writing and get more involved in their communities.

On a recent hot, muggy afternoon at Eli Whitney Elementary, I am surrounded by a throng of enthusiastic children. They race back and forth on a makeshift soccer field on the school's asphalt. The energy and elation that is being loudly broadcast from the four soccer teams on the field is very encouraging. One of them, a sixth grader named Ezmeralda Orozco, tells me, "It's good to get outside and have fun with the other students I don't normally get to play with in class." In a lot of the neighborhoods SCORES has presence in, this is one of the few opportunities the kids have to interact freely and safely while simultaneously getting exercise and supplementary education.

America SCORES was founded 1994, and came to Chicago in 2000. It first established itself in North Lawndale and again in Little Village a few years later. Anyone familiar with K-Town (the stretch of North Lawndale where all the streets begin with a K) knows that it is not the ideal neighborhood for nurturing children. On the little quarter acre lot next to Eli Whitney though, one would never guess that was the case. The complete and utter zeal for sports and positive regard the children treated one another with demonstrated a method for dealing with the hardships of the inner city. Here, the students were able to not only enjoy themselves, but also learn life skills that may have been unavailable to them elsewhere.

SCORES works closely with each of the schools involved with the program. They start by identifying and then training coaches within each facility. The training schools receive comes from some very experienced people. One coach coordinator, Dean Lothian, is a former professional soccer player from Jamaica's Red Stripe team. A pragmatic but congenial soccer enthusiast, he left his career as a player and came to SCORES after sustaining a sports injury. While he urges coaches to bring their own level of individuality, it is his duty to make sure each coach recruited builds a rapport with the children. The relationship between the coaches and the students is essential to the success of the program. Coach Dean tells me, "If the coach is not engaging, the kids are not going to want to come to practice. They have to do more than just throw the ball out there." As a result, coordinators like him take the time to train their staff to really connect with their teams. It shows -- all of the students I encountered played the game with gusto and enthusiasm and met their coaches with joyful anticipation.

The soccer being taught here is non-competitive. The coaches and the students all focus more on skills and development than winning. Walles tells me, "This allows the children to be themselves and have fun rather than focusing on being competitive." This again goes back to the three core values of teamwork, leadership and commitment.

The frenzy of the soccer field is only one component of SCORES, however. Once students have been given the opportunity to learn about teamwork and expression in a sports setting, they are educated in the ways of the written word. With the goal of teaching them stronger communication skills, SCORES uses poetry as a means of teaching interpersonal communication and assertion. When Chicago's weather ceases to allow for any outdoor activity, SCORES and its pupils head into the classrooms to work on a creative writing curricula. The goal of which is the poetry slam that ends the fall season. The students are then encouraged to work both in teams and individually to not only apply the same interpersonal skills initiated on the soccer field, but also hone their abilities to outwardly articulate themselves.

Funding for the program comes from donors, grants -- both public and private. The Scores Cup Tournament and Red Carpet Poetry Slam are two annual events that allow outside donors, such as companies like Deloitte and Hewitt, to compete on the soccer field, experience the project and help fund it. This year's Cup will be held June 26 at Lincoln Park Turf field from 8:30am to 4:30pm.

SCORES has been immensely successful in Chicago, and continues to grow beyond what funding provides. It is up to the schools as to which students can partake in the program. Its popularity with students has resulted in waiting lists both internally at the schools with students and externally with schools throughout CPS. Twelve schools throughout the city are in queue to get involved with SCORES, but the funding is not currently there.

Academic performance weighs heavily in which students are allowed to participate. Eli Whitney's principle, Jorge Ruiz, explains that he typically looks for students looking to develop good character. "Students should first and foremost be able to do their daily work and fulfill their daily duties." Ruiz says he often selects students looking to be better citizens, and "through sports we should be able to develop that." Ruiz is a huge fan of the program and looks forward to continuing Eli Whitney's involvement. "I want you to know that every year I am going to be able to keep working with SCORES. It is an outstanding program."

Independent research has been conducted on America SCORES and shows positive results. The program has been shown to increase literacy and writing skills, as well as give the students a stronger sense of community. Coach Dean has seen many of his students blossom during his tenure with them. "I have seen students go from being very shy, but once they start the program become different people. If the students aren't doing well in class they now have a motivation to stay on the team." Ruiz agrees. "When you have students who are living in the inner city, and there's a lot of gang activity in the neighborhood, this will keep them occupied and they will be able to do other things rather than grow up out there on the streets."

The combination of community service, poetry and soccer is a novel approach to simultaneously combat gang activity and obesity in troubled neighborhoods all over the country. From the joy and passion I saw in all the people I met in the program, its directors, coaches and students, it appears to be getting the job done.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information.

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