Many residents of metropolitan Syracuse are refugees who have come to the U.S. from countries like Turkey, Uganda, Rwanda, and Nepal. David Pittman, Programs and Development Manager at the YWCA of Syracuse & Onondaga County, has not always called Syracuse home. But, having grown up in Spain, soccer has always played an important role in his life, and it still does. “Since I moved to the States, soccer has been a way for me to connect to my culture, to make me feel closer to my culture even though I’m in another country,” he says.
IN THE BEGINNING
It was for this reason that David became the driving force in growing Soccer for Success in Syracuse so that kids of all levels and backgrounds had access to the game he loves. In the last two years, the YWCA of Syracuse & Onondaga County has partnered with several Syracuse Parks and Recreation sites, Catholic Charities, as well as the school district and Onondaga Nation to implement Soccer for Success.
Dave Seburn of Syracuse Department of Parks, Recreation & Youth Programs was eager to bring Soccer for Success to local community centers when he first learned about the program two years ago. “We thought we could benefit from it because we love to introduce new programs at all of our community centers,” he says.
Dave has also found that Soccer for Success is a great tool to bring people of all backgrounds together. “It’s all over the board as far as who participates. Whether you’re Caucasian, African American, Asian…It’s so diverse,” but he also notes, “They all speak soccer…We give everyone an opportunity, no matter where you come from or where you live.”
At Franklin Elementary School, Soccer for Success has also become an important part of daily life for students. Chelsey, an administrator at the school and former teacher at another Soccer for Success site, Frasier School, saw first-hand how her students’ confidence grew through the program.
“Some of my kids who struggled all day long in the classroom because of the language barrier, they might not have anybody who spoke the same language as them,” she remembers of the time she taught English as a new language. “And then they were able to get involved in this soccer program and soccer is a universal language, so that’s when I really started to see these kids blossom and form relationships with other students because they shared that common love for soccer.”
Chelsey also maintains that Soccer for Success has not only provided her students with the chance to play the game they love but has also motivated them to do their best in school. “The program is predominantly immigrant students or first generation American. It’s really given them so many opportunities to be able to play soccer and love it…They want to be here every day and they want to do well because they want to participate in soccer.”
The YWCA was also able to form an important partnership with Onondaga Nation. In exchange for the use of Onondaga Nation’s state-of-the-art facilities, David and other members of the YWCA host Soccer for Success programming at the site. Little did David know that this partnership would open his eyes to a whole new possibility.
THE START OF SOMETHING NEW
In January 2018, YWCA Soccer for Success teams traveled to Onondaga Nation to play against one another at their first local tournament. It was there that David noticed how much untapped talent there was.
The next season, David started to offer extra training sessions and game opportunities for Soccer for Success participants who wished to play at the next level. Through various other community partnerships, David was able to field a team called Syracuse City FC made up of players from various Soccer for Success sites and set up scrimmages against local competitive teams, all at little to no cost for the participants.
“We have kids that have a lot of talent, but they’ve never been on a team before,” David explains. “We see this as opening doors for them just by giving them equal opportunity. That’s really our goal here, our vision.”
One community relationship formed with the CNY Family Sports Centre proved especially valuable. Dave Bove, the general manager and youth soccer director at the Centre, was eager to help David provide more soccer opportunities to his participants. Last season, the Syracuse City FC team was able to compete for the first time in a league at the CNY Family Sports Centre.
MORE THAN JUST A GAME
While David has a vision to provide all the soccer resources he can to his participants, he realizes that they gain more than just an extra soccer practice. “What’s most important is letting the kids know you’re there,” he says. “We focus more on what it means to be a teammate, what is good sportsmanship, what is it like to be supportive to your teammates…the importance of sacrifice, hard work, working for the team not for yourself.”
Dave Bove shares similar sentiments. “There are a few groups that really go out of their way to make sure the program is for the kids, and David is one of those guys,” he says. “Sports can be a great stream into something better. David is one of those guys that sees the bigger picture…It’s not just on the soccer field, but outside the soccer field.”
And Dave is not the only community member who supports David’s mission. “Here in the city, we don’t really have many rec soccer leagues for kids, and if there are, then it does cost money for families or for kids to participate in club programs. It is extremely expensive,” says Chelsey. “David is creating these opportunities which otherwise would not be there for these kids…starting with the Soccer for Success because that’s where the kids are learning the foundational skills.”
“Putting them into situations where they can play competitively and practice the skills that they’ve learned I think is a wonderful philosophy,” says David’s colleague and fellow Soccer for Success coach-mentor, Amanda. “Moving forward it’s a great addition to the program that is already fostering the confidence of the kids.”
The participants themselves have big aspirations too. “I want to get a good education at school and after I finish my education, I want to play in professional clubs and teams,” says 14-year-old Mervan, who moved to Syracuse from Turkey with his family.
Shamir, who is originally from Rwanda says, “I used to play goalkeeper, but I wasn’t that good – now I’m good. I dream of being a professional soccer goalkeeper.”
Going forward, David hopes that even more community members get to see the positive impact of the program and the importance of forming partnerships so that they can serve as a sustainable resource for children, regardless of income or background. “Ideally, we would be able to find some partnerships and be able to show that there’s alternatives to the pay-to-play model and with a little bit of community investment, you can create a lot of positive change,” he explains. “There are resources out there. It’s about being creative, innovative, and having the right message.”
Soccer for Success is the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s after-school program, offered free to participants, that teaches children critical life skills and healthy habits through trained coach-mentors. Visit our website to learn how you can bring Soccer for Success to your community.