I had the pleasure of working with Urban Initiatives last spring as an assistant coach at one of their schools. I read all I could about the program, but nothing compares to actually going to one of the schools and coaching the kids.
Practice started at 7:30 in the morning and I was amazed not only at how many kids showed up that early, but how energized they were to be there! It definitely forced me to wake up. This program is giving these kids something to look forward to before their school day starts. It's an opportunity for them to see their soccer friends, have fun at practice, expend a little of their massive amounts of energy and, most importantly, to learn quite a bit. The list of things they learn is pretty amazing. Yes, they learn how to play soccer, but they also learn what it means to be a healthy person, a good student, a good friend and a responsible person. Soccer is a perfect vehicle for teaching them these much more broad and important life lessons.
Friday is always game day and there's a special excitement in the air. Not only are the kids putting their soccer skills to the test, but they are preparing to meet new kids, just like them, from all over the city. If it weren't for this program these kids would likely never meet each other. Pre-game nervousness is quickly swept away when the whistle blows and it's game time. All the skills and lessons they learned are put into action and it is game time! As a coach it's nice to see that what you've been teaching in practice is translating into success on the soccer field. Sure, goals are nice. But what really counts is the growth of these young soccer players. When the game ends there are high fives and smiles all around. They can't stop talking about how the game went and sharing highlights of their playing.
In the end I think I learned just as much as the kids did, if not more. This is an unbelievably great program that I wish I had when I was growing up in Chicago. The benefits of this program will continue to serve these kids their whole lives and it was fantastic to be a part of that.