In Hawthorne, CA, it is illegal to play soccer in the public parks.
Grassy areas that once existed have been replaced with trees, transforming parks into small sectioned areas, not conducive for play. “Even if you wanted to run around or play in the park, there’s no area to do so,” explained Sergeant Chris Cognac of the Hawthorne Police Department (HPD).
With no fields to play soccer, kids in Hawthorne would take their soccer balls to the only other available space, the local tennis courts.
“The tennis courts were constantly empty, unless there were kids playing soccer,” said Sergeant Cognac. “But because of rules set by the Parks Department, HPD would have to continually kick them off the courts.”
Noticing the lack of use the tennis courts received and the desire the kids had for a place to play soccer, Sergeant Cognac saw an opportunity to further connect with the community and create a safe place for the kids to play soccer.
Working in partnership with the LA Galaxy and Chevrolet, the abandoned tennis courts were transformed into three futsal courts.
“The transformation of the courts has created new life in the community,” said Sergeant Cognac. “It was an empty space that did nothing, and now it’s a space with a purpose that does more than just provide a safe place to play.”
When the courts opened, the HPD announced a Thursday futsal pick-up program on social media. “We did not know what to expect, but wanted to have an organized time where students could come play. Furthermore, we wanted a time where we could build stronger relationships between the officers and the community,” explained Sergeant Cognac.
10 students attended the first Thursday futsal pick-up game. With everyone unsure of what to expect, a game of pick-up began.
“It was exciting because no one knew each other and it worked because they all enjoyed soccer,” said Sergeant Cognac. “We told them to come back next week, and sure enough they did, and so did more kids. And then after a little time, more people realized it was a cool weekly thing.”
Thursday futsal took off and began to spread among the kids from Hawthorne and surrounding communities. Now, with an average of 50 to 70 kids each week, the program serves as an opportunity for the kids to play futsal and receive mentorship.
“We each have a group of mentees that we work with,” said Sergeant Cognac. “We take 5 to 10 minutes each week to check in right there on the courts. We check grades, ask how they’re doing, help them take on leadership roles, and see what we can do to help them succeed.”
After Sergeant Cognac spoke to a group of high school students, one student approached him wanting to learn more about the program.
“Brianna was interested in the program, so I invited her to come on Thursday and share more about herself and her goals,” recalled Sergeant Cognac. “When she came on Thursday, she had written an essay about herself. After reading it, I was hooked. I wanted to help her grow and achieve her goals.”
“The first day I went to futsal I tried playing, but truthfully, I’m not very good,” said Brianna. “But I kept going and took ownership of the program’s social media.”
Brianna has been one of Sergeant Cognac’s mentees for over a year now and knows the program is about more than playing futsal. “The program teaches kids where there is a good and safe place to play after school. It keeps them off the streets,” she said. “I love seeing the kids all come from different neighborhoods and schools and play together.”
While she doesn’t play in the pick-up games on Thursday, Brianna has taken a leadership role within the program, serving as the publicist for the program and teaching some of the younger participants how to create content for the social media accounts. In addition, she has gained real world experience that has guided her decision to study communications in college next year.
“Through the futsal program, I’ve gotten to do more than I ever imagined,” explained Brianna. “I’ve had the opportunity to job shadow the LA Galaxy PR staff, work alongside reporters from the LA Times, and be mentored by staff from the Hawthorne Police Department.”
Other participants have had the opportunity to learn the sport from Gyasi Zardes, a member of the U.S. Men’s National Team and Columbus Crew SC, and a native of Hawthorne.
As a kid, Gyasi was constantly kicked off the tennis courts for playing soccer. Now, he works with the HPD to help run the Thursday futsal program and mentor a group of kids from the community. “To the kids, Gyasi is one of them,” said Sergeant Cognac. “He may be a professional athlete, but he’s from Hawthorne, grew up where the kids are now, and is back playing on the courts.”
Gyasi started working with Sergeant Cognac and the HPD as an intern in college. Since then, he has continued to volunteer, helping to build the program and grow the sport on the courts in Hawthorne.
“He gives what we are doing even more credibility,” said Sergeant Cognac. “He is from the neighborhood, had a dream, went to college, played soccer, and succeeded. He is the definition of what a professional athlete and role model should be.”
Gyasi is one of the many volunteers outside of the HPD that have helped to make the Thursday futsal program successful. Others include a local photographer, who captures Thursday futsal and has taught Brianna and other students photography, and a medical student who tutors students on the side of the courts before and after their games.
Two years into programming, Sergeant Cognac knows the work and success of the program is not something that can fabricated. “The success of the courts and Thursday programming is because everything we do is organic,” explained Sergeant Cognac. “Everything is based on effort. It takes something to invest in the kids – you have to see more than just the kid. Take an interest, empower them, show them a path, and see what they say.”
The impact of the Hawthorne courts has inspired other police departments across the country to start community engagement programs around soccer. One of the departments is the Chicago Police Department, who connected with Sergeant Cognac after learning about the success of the Hawthorne programming. Through Sergeant Cognac, Officer Daniel Diaz was introduced to the U.S. Soccer Foundation and the Safe Places to Play program. This program transforms abandoned courts, empty schoolyards, vacant lots, and the like into state-of-the-art soccer fields for kids.
Together, the U.S. Soccer Foundation, Chicago Fire, MLS Works, and Southern New Hampshire University brought two new Safe Places to Play mini-pitches to Gage Park in Chicago. Now, the pitches are open for play and host soccer programming for youth, while members of the Chicago Police Department coach.
Sergeant Cognac hopes police departments across the country will build courts in their communities and create opportunities to foster leadership and provide mentorship to their community’s youth.