It’s no secret that the end of the calendar year marks a time to both reflect and set new goals.
As we head into 2019, I find myself thinking back on all the progress we’ve made to impact children in Chicago as a part of a larger movement to bring soccer to communities across the country.
On Dec. 6, 2017, the Chicago Fire organization joined Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago Park District, Citadel, and the U.S. Soccer Foundation at Gage Park to make an announcement. Through the Chicago Soccer Initiative, we teamed up to build 50 Safe Places to Play mini-pitches in underserved neighborhoods throughout Chicago over five years, all in support of the Foundation’s effort to build 1,000 of these mini-pitches and engage one million children in Soccer for Success annually by 2026 through It’s Everyone’s Game.
In addition to serving as the launch site for It’s Everyone’s Game and the Chicago Soccer Initiative, the mini-pitches at Gage Park, built in 2017 in partnership with the Chicago Park District, MLS WORKS, SNHU, and the U.S. Soccer Foundation, were the first mini-pitches to host the Chicago Fire’s proprietary P.L.A.Y.S. Program.
The P.L.A.Y.S. Program, which serves Chicago Public School boys and girls in grades three through five, uses soccer to teach key social and emotional learning (SEL) traits and values, such as emotional control, goal setting and attainment, cooperation, and respect.
Importantly, it provides opportunities to children who might not otherwise get the chance to play the beautiful game – 93 percent of P.L.A.Y.S. participants live in communities with social and economic challenges, including high levels of crime, and 95 percent of participants qualify for free or reduced lunch and live at or below the poverty level.
Since its inception, the P.L.A.Y.S. Program has engaged 528 youth across 22 Chicago schools in more than 140,000 hours of soccer.
But the impact of our P.L.A.Y.S. Program runs deeper than the programming that we have in place.
Although our mini-pitch at Irma C. Ruiz Park (formerly known as Walnut Park) only opened a few short months ago, it has not taken long for the community to fully embrace its existence. Juvenal Gomez, an 18-year volunteer with the Parks District, says that, in addition to providing a place where he and other local soccer enthusiasts can get together for pick-up games, the mini-pitch has also introduced the game to young members of the community.
According to Juvenal, many of these individuals don’t have the means to join a club team, so this mini-pitch has played an integral role in providing access to the game.
Juvenal has also been actively taking a group of kids who play on the mini-pitch at Irma C. Ruiz Park around the neighborhood, knocking on doors to introduce themselves to other members of the community. These residents now come to the park to watch the local youth enjoy themselves out on the pitch.
Not only do initiatives such as Soccer for Success, our P.L.A.Y.S. Program, and the creation of Safe Places to Play mini-pitches make soccer more accessible in communities across the country, they also teach valuable life skills to children who, in turn, become better prepared to lead healthy and productive lives.
While our programming has made a strong impact in the community in 2018, there is still more work that needs to be done and more children whose lives we can positively impact through the beautiful game. With 2019 approaching, we’re eager to continue our meaningful work in the community in partnership with the U.S. Soccer Foundation.
Jessica Yavitz is the Executive Director of the Chicago Fire Foundation. The Chicago Soccer Initiative launched in December 2017 with the goal of building 50 play spaces throughout Chicago over five years in support of It’s Everyone’s Game. Learn more about the partnership here.