Passersby would probably not have identified the outdoor playing grounds at East Side Community High School as a recreational facility. Lacking any grass, and with the stems of poles sticking out of the ground, the area resembled a vacant, unkept lot more than a place where a school would hold its P.E. classes. Those who worked at the school described the playing space as a dirt patch with holes where people would throw their garbage. The area was full of broken glass and pipes.
It was a dangerous area where kids could get hurt, and it angered Mark Federman, the school’s principal, that the space wasn’t being taken care of.
“It was a danger zone,” he says.
The kids were playing wherever they could play — in the cafeteria, in the art gallery, in the hallways — because they didn’t have a proper place to practice.
“If it had just rained, then the dirt pitch would be complete mud,” says Charli, now a junior at East Side, of her middle school playing days. “We had to make space [to] practice.”
In 2012, East Side Community High School's middle school team played in its first soccer league. The team started out with just six players. After some internal recruiting, Coach Lou, the school's P.E. teacher, enlisted three girls, which brought the team just above the eight-player minimum to join the league.
The team lost all 12 games they played in that first year, but Coach Lou says that it was the beginning of something huge.
In the spring of 2013, East Side Community High School started integrating Soccer for Success into its after-school programming through University Settlement, a non-profit that serves families in the Lower East Side of New York.
“At that point, we had already started our soccer program, but what [the] U.S. Soccer Foundation was providing was even more depth, and specifically, it was [providing] training for the coaches,” Monique Flores, senior program director at University Settlement, said of Soccer for Success. “That was when Coach Lou got really great training and was able to make connections with other coaches and really expand our soccer program.” Coach Lou is now the Soccer for Success head coach.
While the school had been able to implement quality soccer programming, students were still playing on a dangerous surface. As if on cue, Monique discovered that the U.S. Soccer Foundation was looking to build a mini-pitch at one of the New York City Soccer for Success sites. “It was like a dream come true," she says.
Monique shared that having a mini-pitch at the school would help families connect their kids to teams by providing a new and improved safe play space, as well as programming.
About a year before the mini-pitch opened, the New York Red Bulls joined the partnership to help fund its construction. “We thought this was a great opportunity for us to be there and to grow and develop the game of soccer,” says Christina Giunta-Quarino, senior director of field marketing and community relations with the New York Red Bulls.
“Once they started construction of the mini-pitch, there was definitely a new wave of excitement amongst everyone, even the people who weren’t soccer players,” Charli says.
Coach Lou explains that participation numbers increased as a result of the construction. By the second year of the soccer program, 50 girls and boys were participating. Today, the school rosters girls and boys Junior Varsity and Varsity teams for both middle school and high school, and even then, the teams are overflowing.
The only way to meet the new demand was to introduce year-round soccer programming, which, in addition to Soccer for Success and middle school and high school soccer leagues, includes the Chelsea Piers indoor league and Asphalt Green Soccer Club. Since the opening of the mini-pitch just under three years ago, the teams have won over 10 championship titles across local leagues.
Even though they compete in other leagues, the teams that come from East Side preserve a key element of Soccer for Success. “The great thing about our program is no cuts,” says Coach Lou. “Everyone plays.”
The mini-pitch was officially unveiled in the summer of 2015, and the local community has witnessed a handful of positive changes since its opening.
For one, the mini-pitch has changed the landscape for the local community. “Soccer has become something really important for a lot of our inner-city youth,” says Monique. “Because of the field…we’re highlighted as the great school for soccer and the kids come to school and want to go to that school because of the soccer program.”
Children who apply to attend East Side even include their desire to join the soccer program in their applications. “We hear more and more in their letters and in their applications that they’re wanting to be on the soccer team, wanting to be part of the soccer program,” Mark says.
“There’s just so many kids who want to play soccer,” Charli says. "[The kids] who have been at East Side and have played a different sport, or no sport at all, see that soccer is such an inclusive sport. The pitch really brought everyone together to see that this is a school that takes soccer seriously and wants success, not just for the sport, but for the students who play it too.”
Christina reiterates that the kids have “become real fans of our team and the sport.”
While the mini-pitch has impacted the way the local community feels about soccer, it has been especially meaningful for the students at East Side.
“Before, the kids were playing on a dirt field and could barely see the ball because the dirt was kicking up and they really didn’t have any place to play,” Christina says. “Now, with Soccer for Success programming and the mini-pitch, they're able to play afterschool and have leagues there.”
Not to mention that for a lot of these kids, stepping on the mini-pitch for Soccer for Success is their first experience playing soccer. “They line up in front of my office to get the ball and the jersey,” says Coach Lou. “Having a soccer ball that belongs to them means everything to them.”
“You see kids who have never played before [and] they’re starting to enjoy the sport,” says Charli. “Once you see a mixture of kids who have never played, and a coach who has been playing soccer his entire life, and kids who have played, and kids who are kind of in that middle ground…it really adds a sense of inclusivity…it’s a place where everyone can play.”
“Inner-city kids don’t get enough opportunities to be outside and playing,” says Monique, “and if we can actually organize that to happen for them and they’re having fun, then it’s a perfect win-win.”
The Safe Places to Play mini-pitch at East Side Community High School is an accessible, inclusive, and safe place for members of the community to come together and play the world’s game. Help us bring these opportunities to more kids across the country. Visit itseveryonesgame.org to get involved.