Closing in on its third decade of existence, the U.S. Soccer Foundation is using soccer to bring change where it is most needed.
The United States Soccer Foundation was founded in 1994, part of America reigniting its interest in the beautiful game around the time of the World Cup. More than 18 years later, its legacy is arguably just as important as any other initiative in American soccer, using soccer and embracing modern technology culture to effect positive social change.
Goal.com recently talked with Foundation President and CEO Ed Foster-Simeon via email about the Foundation and some of the challenges it is tackling:
Goal.com: You recently ran a social media contest inviting people to submit photos of fields they wished to develop on Twitter and Instagram, with finalists voting via Facebook. How did the exposure for this contest compare with any similar efforts in the past that didn’t use social media channels so aggressively?
Ed Foster-Simeon: We ran a social media-based contest called “Field of Dreams,” in which we asked the general public to submit photos of a space that they wanted to turn into a soccer field for their community.
Finalists of the contest were determined by photo “likes” on Facebook and Instagram. Finalists were then invited to submit additional information about why they needed a field and the impact the field would have on their community. The winner of the contest received a planning grant from us, to help jumpstart the planning phase for a new field.
The "Field of Dreams" contest engaged close to three times the number of applicants we normally see in a standard grant cycle. In addition to seeing an increase in applicants, we also saw an increase in social media activity as more people began to pay attention to our page as well as engage in terms of liking, commenting or tweeting. Just as an example, we received over 1,000 likes to our Facebook from this contest alone. Just as importantly, the contest made many more people aware of the pressing need for more safe places to play and got those people talking about solutions.
Goal.com: Former U.S. national team goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann recently expressed his displeasure to one of our writers about the lack of physical education his son received at his new school in Seattle after moving back from England, saying: “My 12-year-old doesn't even have P.E., then the school wonders why kids act up at lunch time while they get a 20-minute break for the whole day... how can a 12-year-old not have any chance to go run around and not burn off energy during the day, and then they expect them to pay attention in class? It just doesn't make sense to me.”
How much of a problem has lack of active time for young kids in school been in regards to issues like childhood obesity, and how is the U.S. Soccer Foundation working to change that situation?
Ed Foster-Simeon: The youth of today are facing a major health crisis with the childhood obesity epidemic. One third of the nation’s children are overweight or obese. One in three. That comes with serious human and economic costs. Unless things change, experts indicate that this generation will be the first in which the children will have a lower life expectancy than their parents. Moreover, the direct and indirect costs of inactivity cost the country more than $146 billion in 2008. To address this problem, we know that it is imperative for children to have opportunities to not only eat healthier but get physically active.
Soccer is a great sport for improving health because of its continuous nature and its low barrier of entry - you really only need a ball to play. We work primarily in urban, under-resourced communities and it is important for us to know what challenges children face in those communities in order to make a meaningful impact.
We know that the most dangerous time of the day for children is after-school. It is important for kids to have a safe place to go after-school, away from negative influences. In addition, we know that in one third of schools with the highest poverty rates – recess has been eliminated. There is a need for children to have an opportunity to exercise in a safe environment. We fill that gap by offering Soccer for Success, our free after-school program that combines soccer and nutrition education.
For 90 minutes a day, three times a week for the entire academic year, kids can come to our program and learn soccer skills, learn how to eat healthier and interact with caring coaches/mentors who are dedicated to improving their well-being. With the program being free, we eliminate any cost barrier that may have prevented a child from participating otherwise. Since last year, we have more than doubled the cities we are serving and will almost double the amount of children we serve by the end of the program year.
In addition to learning and enjoying soccer, 89 percent of our participants in the overweight or obese categories decreased their BMI percentile as a result of the program. 82 percent of participants said that they know more about healthy foods as a result of the program as well. In addition to the lack of active programming available for children in and out of school, children in urban areas often lack the green space to play in general. We work with communities to build safe places to play in urban areas and have helped create over 1,000 safe places to date.
Goal.com: Where I live, in Philadelphia, young girls are especially at risk, with the teen birth rate by far the highest in the state, with 63 births per 1,000 girls aged 15-19, and 70 percent of teen mothers drop out of high school. With soccer the most visible women’s team sport in America, and a natural positive role model for these young girls, what is the U.S. Soccer Foundation doing to provide and reach at-risk girls in the inner-city?
Ed Foster-Simeon: We love soccer because it is a sport that encompasses all. It is cross-cultural, cross-generational and gender-neutral. By lowering the barrier of entry to play soccer and giving girls the confidence to play – encouraged by caring mentors – we can impact girls in a positive way using soccer. We also provide grants to organizations that are using soccer for social change (Anderson Monarchs for example, in Philadelphia) – once again, providing opportunities for girls to play and be positively impacted by a sport that can keep them engaged in a dynamic and fun way.
In Philadelphia, we work with (former Harrisburg City Islanders defender) JT Dorsey and his foundation to implement Soccer for Success. He once told me a story about a girl that joined the program in her neighborhood. When she started the program, she sat on the sidelines and did not want to join the other children. The coaches continued to encourage her to join the program - they refused to give up on her. Slowly but surely, she became more involved and wanted to do more. Now she demonstrates the day’s activities, helps the coaches and even began to encourage other girls in the neighborhood to join Soccer for Success. They call this girl, “Girl Power.” She is an example of the inclusive nature of soccer and shows the impact that a quality program with well trained and caring coaches can have.
The U.S. Soccer Foundation's contributions have been impressive. According to the Foundation, since its inception, it has awarded $57 million to various organizations and field-building projects around the country, and its "Passback" program has collected and redistributed more than 900,000 items of soccer gear. Throughout the month of December, the Foundation has teamed up with Fox Soccer Channel to promote its "Creating Chances" initiative, a fundraising campaign to create safe environments for underserved children to play soccer.
To find out more about the U.S. Soccer Foundation and its programs, visit ussoccerfoundation.org