America SCORES NY: Empowering Urban Students Through Soccer and Poetry

Cesar Diaz@@gritwriterCorrespondent IIJanuary 19, 2011

America Scores: Serving 15 cities throughout the United States. (Photograph courtesy of Rob Uvanovic)
America Scores: Serving 15 cities throughout the United States. (Photograph courtesy of Rob Uvanovic)

"We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends." - Mary McLeod Bethune

Recently I had received an email from Rob Uvanović; Program Manager for America SCORES New York. He reached out to me because he had read my article, "Nuyorican Poets Cafe: Covering Soccer the Nuyorican Way" and he wanted to educate me about American SCORES New York and the services they provide in three Public Schools for the children in Harlem. Without hesitation, I agreed to go to the office of America SCORES NY for a meeting.

With the rise of obesity and asthma mixed with low reading scores the children in this city continue to produce, they are endanger of never reaching their full potential. Along with the breakdown of family dynamics and the elimination of after-school programs and non-profits, a service like America SCORES New York is doing its part in being addressing the needs of the children of Harlem.

As much as I love New York City, I'm also aware that it's a city which can steal a child's innocence and aspiration to be somebody. Growing in the Bronx during the 80s, I witnessed my share of lunacy that most Americans would never understand. From abandoned buildings to the landfills of the South Bronx, I remember neighbors knocking on my door asking for a "fiver" so they feed their craving to get high.

From the smash and grabs I witnessed in Fordham Road to the junkies nodding off in the graffiti-coverd smelly train that I occasionally rode, that was my normal life in the South Bronx before my family made the decision to move to Arizona after seeing two bullet holes in the family car. If it wasn't for the strong family support system I was blessed with, who knows where I would have ended up.

When I say where, I don't mean prison or becoming a teenage father because at a young age I was a reclusive young Clark Kent-looking J.D. Salinger of a New York Cosmos fan who wasn't cool with the young ladies so it was easy to set my sights on college. Who am I kidding? It was the expectation my family had of me... going to college was never an option for me. 

If anything, my parents were more concerned that I would have been a victim of a crime while I was commuting to/from school. So any program which utilizes soccer to address the educational and physical needs of the children living within our urban communities will always attract my attention.

America SCORES was founded in 1994 by a D.C. public schoolteacher named Julie Kennedy. Facing the challenge of keeping her students out of trouble, Ms. Kennedy decided to utilize the tools she learned as an athlete by coaching a girls soccer team. When the weather was horrific, she would have her team stay indoors where they would spend their time writing poetry. Over time, Ms. Kennedy noticed a positive change in her students' self-esteem, grades, and their decision to live a healthier life.

Now in 2011, there are 15 America SCORES sites throughout the United States in low-income cities serving over 6,000 students. The demographic breakdown of the children they're serving are 47% Latino, 29% African American, 6% white, 6% bi/multiracial, 6% Asian American/Pacific Islander, and 6% identified as "other."

While I can't speak for the other 14 America SCORES sites, I believe the one in New York is in good hands with Rob Uvanović and his colleagues. Like myself, Rob views soccer as  more than just a game. He believes in the positive impact it can make in the lives of others and has dedicated himself to pursue a career in it.

"Being a soccer fan was my learning vehicle to learn about the world and other societies," explained Uvanovic. "Not only did I want to know the team's history, I had to learn where each player was from and about his country and society. To this day, I refuse to cheer for Real Madrid because I know how the Spanish government treated Barcelona FC and the Catalan people during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco."

Throughout our free-flowing soccer conversation where we jumped around numerous soccer topics the same way Barcelona runs their "Tiki-taka" offense, Uvanovic explained to me that America SCORES NY is broken into two sessions, Fall and Spring. Even though the Fall session (8-9 weeks) is shorter, the students conclude their session with a Community Slam Poetry event. The Spring session (10-12 weeks) tends to be longer because there's a service learning component to it. 

The coaches for each site are the school's teachers. Every teacher involved has the option of being a soccer coach or a poetry coach. Regardless of the choice, they receive a winter and summer session 7-10 hour training from the staff of America Scores. In the training sessions, the teachers are given a Soccer & Poetry curriculum which they're expected to follow.

Once everything is set and ready to go, the program runs all five days of the academic week. Each school they serve in Harlem consists of 32 students between the grades of third and fifth. Within the 32 students, boys and girls teams of 16 students are formed and they participate in two days of soccer, two days of poetry, and Friday is game day.

When asked about the challenges they face, Uvanovic candidly answered, "One challenge we have in all three of our sites is the lack of parental involvement. By no means am I implying that they're not interested. This being New York City, many of our parents work and have other matters to attend too during the time our program operates. That and many of the children we serve lack a father figure in their lives. For many of our students, we're the only male role model they have in their lives."

At the conclusion of our conversation, I've agreed to attend one day after-school to observe the program first hand. In addition, I'm also going to cover their Poetry Slam event at the Apollo Theater where 30 kids from all the America SCORES sites will compete against each other.

The only thing that isn't being downsized in New York City is the need for volunteers so if you're able to help America SCORES in New York or in any of their 15 sites, please do so. To learn more about America SCORES, please go to: http://www.americascores.org 

You can also follow America SCORES NY at Facebook and Twitter at @AmericaSCORESNY. To learn how you can get involved with America Scores NY, contact Rob Uvanović at: ruvanovic@americascores.org.

Cesar Diaz covers Soccer for Latino Sports. You may follow him at Facebook at Covering Soccer and at Twitter at @CoveringSoccer and @LatinoSports143. Please email your questions and comments to Cesar at cesar@latinosports.com.


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