by Ryan Bailey

A local non-profit is using the power of the beautiful game to provide a safe space and educational opportunities for children and families in need.

CHARLOTTE—One of the reasons soccer is the world’s most popular sport is its simplicity. You don’t need a helmet, pads, a hoop or a racquet to play. In fact, you don’t even need a ball.

“I’ve played soccer in other countries with a ball made of leaves, or even plastic bags,” says Katie Phillips, Executive Director of the non-profit Soccer Foundation of Charlotte (Soccer F.C.). “It’s a sport everyone can play and it breaks down every barrier. It’s a universal language.”

Global appeal and a low barrier to entry makes soccer the perfect tool to enrich Charlotte’s immigrant, refugee and at-risk populations, who may be brought together through a mutual affinity for the game.

“If you go into the neighborhoods we’re serving, there are always kids outside playing soccer,” says Phillips. “It doesn’t matter what time of day, they’re out there with a soccer ball.”

Over 48,000 children live at or below the poverty line in Charlotte, most of whom struggle to participate in any youth sports programs. Since 2017, Soccer F.C. has provided free after-school programming to many of those children, while giving help and support to their families and communities.

“Statistically, right after school is the most critical point of a child’s day,” explains Phillips. “It’s when crime rates go up and a lot of kids come from neighborhoods where it’s not safe to go outside. The minute they get off the school bus, they’re inside and in front of the TV.”

“So, we wanted to give those kids a safe space to be during that time,” adds Phillips. “It’s a space where they have a coach and mentor who shows up for them during a really crucial part of their day. We get to know the parents and families, and we’re there to love, and advocate for, these kids.”

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Soccer F.C.’s program was used bi-weekly by over 250 children at four CMS Title 1 Elementary schools: Greenway Park, Idlewild, Starmount and Merry Oaks. The pandemic may have halted after-school activities, but it has not diverted Soccer F.C.’s mission to help underserved children and their families.

“Our programming looks really different now, but we’ve had the opportunity to forge a closer relationship with many families in our program” says Phillips. “We drop off groceries or soccer balls on doorsteps, and do what we can to meet the unique needs of those we serve.”
The stay-at-home measures have also allowed Soccer F.C. to put focus on one of its core values: encouraging a love of reading.

“We felt like we wanted to leverage our position in our communities and literacy was a subject that kept coming up,” says Phillips. “It’s a really big predictor for success. I read that about two thirds of low-income families don’t have any books at home, so we offer our kids a book to take home every week. They usually pick it themselves, as they’re more likely to read it that way.”

Soccer F.C.’s participants have been encouraged to engage in reading long before their schools were closed down. “After each practise session, our coaches would read them a story, ask questions, and try to relate the narrative to their own lives,” says Phillips. “We’re not trying to change their reading level — we’re trying to change the way they view reading.”

During this time, Soccer F.C. is seeking donations of children’s books, and they have also set up an Amazon Wish List. The foundation also welcomes monetary donations. It costs $400 to provide a year of programming, a jersey and a ball for an underserved child in Charlotte.

“We serve a lot of refugee and immigrant communities who are not receiving any government help,” says Phillips. ”Immigrants play such a crucial part of our ecosystem, but they are really struggling at a time like this.

“We feel lucky to be a program those communities trust, and they will reach out to us for help.”