Work to Play is our
flagship program.

Work to Play provides children in grades K-4 with the chance to belong to a soccer team, regardless of skill level. Children are taught important lessons about health, character, and teamwork by their coach. Membership means two practices and one game per week throughout the school year. Ongoing team participation depends on meeting academic and behavioral standards, as measured by their teachers on a weekly basis.

  • ↑20%

    Work to Play participants are 20% more likely to meet or exceed state standards on standardized tests than their classmates.

  • 96%

    96% of Work to Play participants engage in 60 minutes of play 5 days per week.

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Meet Damarion!

Goethe Elementary in Logan Square is home to one of Urban Initiatives’ largest teams. With forty players on the roster—thirty Work to Play participants and ten Take the Lead Team Captains—there is no shortage of personalities on display at practices and games. One player who consistently stands out is a third grader named Damarion.

The fall 2014 season was Damarion’s first with Urban Initiatives. Like many players, he joined his school’s Work to Play team to spend more time with his friends, yet at practices his sociability often proved disruptive. He rarely followed the team’s rules, he constantly talked when coaches and Team Captains were giving instructions, and he pushed other players during drills and scrimmages. The consequences of his actions led to him being sidelined for a game.

From the very earliest practices, Damarion’s coaches saw the need for one-on-one intervention. “We asked him to imagine that he was the coach and that we were disrupting him when he was trying to explain the game,” Coach Abreu said. “We highlighted how when he allowed the coaches to focus on the team, the practices were much more fun for everyone.”

As the weeks went on, the talks got shorter and the changes in Damarion’s behavior were evident. He shifted his attention to being an active participant and a good teammate. Damarion’s classroom performance also improved. From the very beginning of the season, his teachers reported that he didn’t always accept guidance during lessons, and he wasn’t very respectful of his classmates. By the season’s end, though, his weekly Work to Play teacher evaluations improved. His behavior was so much better that his coaches voted to include Damarion in the annual Soccer Ball video as a reward.

Damarion’s coaches aren’t the only ones excited about his improvement. His mom is also thrilled. “He’s always been a sweet kid,” explains Damarion’s mom, “but since he started with Urban Initiatives I’ve seen a huge change in the way he interacts with his friends and his teammates. He’s becoming a better person, and I think he sees that, too.”

Take the Lead is a leadership
development program.

Take the Lead engages the most promising and motivated Work to Play alumni in grades 5-8. Participants are nominated by their coaches, and fill the role of Team Captain on Work to Play teams. Through this opportunity, they learn the merits of leadership, academic persistence, and community service, all while navigating the significant period of early adolescent development. They participate in all Work to Play sessions plus engage with adult mentors in small group skill-building sessions and bi-monthly cross-Chicago Take the Lead Retreats.

  • 100%

    100% of Take the Lead Team Captains are confident in their ability to be leaders of their younger teammates.

  • 97%

    97% of Team Captains exhibited high levels of classroom task persistence after one year of participation.

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Meet Aaliyah!

Since 2008, Urban Initiatives has been one of the few program partners at Libby Elementary in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. Libby’s Coach, Chris Hill, invests his energy in building a strong team culture, where kids can have fun while supporting each other to improve both on the field and in the classroom. Players at Libby are incredibly devoted to the team, and many of them have been playing soccer through Work to Play for years. One such player is Aaliyah.

Aaliyah joined the team as an 8-year old 3rd grader during Libby’s inaugural year with the Work to Play program. From the beginning, she was the heart and soul of the team. When she reached 5th grade, her coach quickly promoted her to Team Captain, where she spent the next four years working as an assistant coach at practice, guiding the school’s younger players and encouraging everyone to respectfully follow Coach H’s lead.

Outside of practice, Aaliyah was the player who always reminded kids to be at practice on time, even during the winter months when practice started at 7:00 AM. If kids were not at practice, she followed up with them in the school’s hallways, letting them know that they were missed and that the team was counting on them. Overflowing with both charisma and soccer skills, Aaliyah was consistently a proud leader of the Libby team.

Through her experience with the Take the Lead program, Aaliyah gained both self-esteem and discipline. Together with her strong academic performance, she was able to parlay that into admission to Lindblom Math & Science Academy, a selective enrollment CPS high school. Her former teacher, Ms. Barrera, credits UI with being the “support system (that helped her) stay focused and on track to be able to go to a good high school.”

Not surprisingly, after 6 years with the team, Aaliyah’s bond did not end with her graduation from Libby in 2014. Aaliyah had been a player and team Captain on the soccer team for six years. Now in her sophomore year she maintains her presence on Libby’s soccer team by volunteering at practice. By giving back to the program that meant so much to her, she’s the best role model possible! She’s the proof that hard work in the classroom and commitment to the team will actually help you stay on track to achieve your dreams.

Play with Potential is a
structured recess program.

Play with Potential aims to maximize the health, academic, and social and emotional learning benefits of recess periods. The program is offered to all students in a school, K-8, and aims
 to maximize students’ opportunities for physical activity, while promoting cooperation and teamwork. We have dedicated on-site staff and a broad recess curriculum that includes equipment.

  • ↑45%

    Play with Potential students are 45% more likely to engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity than students at other schools.

  • 2X

    Play with Potential students are 2X more likely to engage in prosocial behaviors during recess than students at other schools.

  • Make an Impact

    Your donations allow us to create positive change in the lives of Chicago’s youth. All donations are tax-deductible.

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Meet Daley School on Cornell Square Park.

Daley Academy is located directly across the street from Cornell Square Park, a beautiful public space that has gained citywide notoriety for gang activity. When Daley began partnering with Urban Initiatives for recess in the Fall of 2012, there was understandable concern about using Cornell Square Park. Over time and with encouragement from Urban Initiatives’ staff, the school community used more and more of the beautiful play space so that students and the community could reclaim the park for its intended use: fun and physical activity.

As recess gained community recognition as a daily institution, school staff noticed that people who might represent a threat to students began to avoid the park. Gang members who used to hang out by the basketball courts during the day cleared out once they saw the park fill up with Daley kids every day.

When Cornell Square Park made national headlines for a nighttime, gang-related shootout that wounded 13 people, including a 3-year old boy, on September 20, 2013, recess immediately shifted indoors. One week later, with support from school staff and Chicago police, students were back outside, using the park for its intended purpose – positive play and recreation. Although gang violence is an ongoing concern in the neighborhood around Daley Academy, students’ use of the park for recess is a daily stand against violence. The teams at Daley and Urban Initiatives are working together with the neighborhood to keep Cornell Square Park a place for kids and families to be safe, healthy, and active.