Free program helps city children score

Free program helps city children score
The Access4All program, a collaboration between the Alexandria Soccer Association, Alexandria City Public Schools and the city's Parks & Recreation Department, aims to provide the opportunity to play soccer to children of all income levels. (Courtesy Photo)

By Mae Hunt |

Alexandria Soccer Association Executive Director Tommy Park believes there’s power in playing soccer at a young age.

Park, through a collaboration between ASA, Alexandria City Public Schools and the Alexandria Department of Recreation, Parks & Cultural Activities, launched a program this year that aims to get more city children on the field, regardless of cost barriers.

The project, Access4All, is a continuation of ASA’s ongoing efforts to increase accessibility through specific initiatives like community outreach and scholarships. It seeks to address a growing need. Out of the 5,000 children participating in ASA’s soccer leagues, 1,500 are on free or reduced lunch.

Park said playing soccer young doesn’t just provide physical health advantages, but improves performance in school, as well as teamwork and leadership skills. Children from lower-income families, however, often encounter roadblocks when trying to participate in after-school sports, even if the program itself is free, according to Park.

”There’s still a need, especially at the Title 1 schools, where parents just don’t have the same bandwidth, whether it’s time or money or transportation, to get their kids to a recreation soccer practice or across the city to a game,” Park said.

Additionally, Park said many Alexandria students in need may not have access to a safe, suitable playing field. The goal of Access4All is to provide solutions to these challenges and ensure that all Alexandria kids can play.

“We said, ‘What would remove every barrier?’” Park said.

That’s where the Parks & Rec became involved. ASA was once part of the department – it was founded in 1970 as a subset of Parks & Rec. Eventually, the organization grew too big for the city to support, and it was re-established as a private nonprofit. The association used its ties to the department to help scout and develop potential locations for kids to play soccer.

They discovered, through that process, that the city had untapped potential in the form of several deteriorating and often unused tennis and basketball courts. The courts were eligible for renovation as part of Parks & Rec’s capital improvement plan. Park met with Dana Wedeles, principal planner for the department, to see if anything could be done to convert the spaces as part of Access4All.

“We had a number of tennis and basketball courts that were somewhat underused for their designated sports, but the community had come out and started playing soccer on them, particularly in immigrant communities,” Wedeles said.

Soccer played on a court, rather than on a field, is known as futsal. It is played with five players on each team, including goalies.

“The kids love it,” Park said. “It’s a much easier way to be introduced to the game because you’re more involved.”

Park and Wedeles were able to come together and work toward Access4All’s goals by renovating existing courts into courts that could be used to play futsal.

“Rather than just renovating the courts in kind and making them simply tennis or basketball as they had previously been, we looked at ways to renovate the courts to make them multi-purpose so they could be lined for both soccer or basketball, or other various sports,” Wedeles said.

The partnership between ASA and Parks & Rec didn’t stop there. During Fiscal Year 2017, ASA applied to the department’s Community Matching Fund program. ASA donated $15,000 to developing more court space, which the department matched dollar-for-dollar.

Park said the program had the help of private donors as well. The RunningBrooke foundation, for example, donated $10,000 to help with landscaping and fence work around the new courts, fully funding the John Adams league in the process.

“It’s been a great partnership because we’ve been able to work together and provide what the community was seeking, and provide flexibility to maximize the use of limited court space in the city,” Wedeles said.

Several of the sites being transformed as part of Access4All are on the grounds of Alexandria City Public Schools. Park said that’s, in part, because many of the students that the Access4All program aims to help are ACPS students. Park said, as ASA and the city were going about the process, he realized a partnership with ACPS would make sense.

At that point, Park met with Kurt Huffman, the director of school, business and community partnerships at ACPS, at a city meeting to talk about a possible collaboration. Huffman said the partnership was a natural fit from ACPS’ perspective, especially considering the health and wellness goal of the ACPS 2020 Strategic Plan.

Together with Parks & Rec and ACPS, ASA was able to establish free after-school leagues, complete with trained staff, transportation, equipment and snacks. ASA provided students with free balls, jerseys and access to professional coaches. ACPS provided facilities and transportation to make sure the young athletes got home safe. In addition, ACPS principals rallied support from teachers and social workers to serve as extra hands.

“[The strategic plan] was all about expanding our equitable opportunities for students, and this was a great partnership to do that as it was free and included mentoring and coaching and after-school snacks, and an alignment and combination with many teachers and staff from the buildings who helped out doing the coaching and mentoring also,” Huffman said.

Now, the free after-school league is thriving at William Ramsey, Cora Kelly and John Adams Elementary Schools. Huffman said that he hopes the program will continue to grow in the coming years.

“Right now, we’re in partnership discussions to expand it to multiple other buildings,” Huffman said.

Park said he hopes Access4All and the free after-school leagues will help bring Alexandria together through diversity and love of the sport.

“Our commitment is to continue to increase our community’s passion and enjoyment of the game so that we can use it as a tool to bring together the community, because we’re very diverse,” Park said. “… We have a unique ability to bring people from all neighborhoods together, and all different backgrounds, both from a cultural diversity and an economic diversity. We also have an opportunity to get our entire city moving, active, healthy.”

“If someone has a desire to play, and they want to join a team, our commitment is to figure out any way to break that barrier down,” he said.