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Soccer program scores in impoverished schools

The Grains and the Veggies were challenging but, in the end, the field of play belonged to the Fruits.

Soccer coach Matthew Johnson at last tooted his whistle and gathered his second-grade soccer players, who’d been scampering all over one corner of the playground at McGlone Elementary in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood.

“All right now!” he yelled, high-fiving his squad. “Tell me the five food groups again – and no, frosting isn’t one of them!”

The youngsters were using their newly-learned ball-handling techniques to corral as many soccer balls as possible into the appointed food-zones.

They were doing a lot of running in the process, and by turning it into a game, Johnson – a teacher at McGlone – hoped he was making both soccer practice and nutrition education into something fun and healthy.

Soccer as an anti-obesity tool

Last week was Week 4 at McGlone of Soccer for Success, the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s innovative after-school program that uses soccer to combat childhood obesity and promote healthy lifestyles for children in low-income urban areas.

Last year, the program operated in more than 60 schools in Chicago, D.C., Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Newark, Portland and Philadelphia. This year, it has expanded to Denver and eight other cities.

In Denver, the 12-week program is being offered in nine schools located in or near the so-called “Children’s Corridor,” a 14-mile-long stretch along I-70 from Near Northeast Denver to Green Valley Ranch. The corridor is home to 54,000 children, roughly two-thirds of whom live in poverty.

Seventy-five kids, kindergarten through fifth grade, at each school – 675 kids in total – get to participate free of charge. Come spring, the program will expand to seven more schools so a total of 1,200 will be able to play.

It’s funded through a $300,000 grant the U.S. Soccer Foundation gave to the Colorado Fusion Soccer Club, in collaboration with America SCORES Denver and the Piton Foundation. The Fusion is responsible for implementing the program.

“This is a great intervention strategy for helping to improve the health and education outcomes of these kids,” said Jon Goldin-Dubois, executive director of the Colorado Fusion. “The reality is, these kids have too few opportunities to participate in organized sports. This is a way to give them a very positive experience playing soccer, being part of a team, building confidence, but also understanding healthy eating habits and engaging their parents in this at the same time.”

Skill and previous soccer experience don’t matter

Here’s how it works: A site coordinator is appointed to oversee the program in each school, and coaches are hired to be both coach and mentor to the students. Whenever possible, teachers from the school are hired to be coaches since the kids already know them.

Every child selected for the program is given a soccer ball, shin guards, socks and jersey. It’s a three-day-a-week commitment for them, usually meeting right after school Tuesday through Thursday. They begin with a healthy snack, then proceed to the soccer field for 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity.

At McGlone, where 96 percent of the students are eligible for federal meal assistance, organizers are considering adding a “super-snack” after practice, to help ensure the youngsters are getting enough to eat.

They’re grouped by age, and previous soccer experience or skill doesn’t matter. The soccer drills and games they play are designed to reinforce the nutrition and healthy lifestyle theme of the week. Week 4 is “Food Groups.” By the end of the 12-week program, they will have touched on eating habits, healthy bodies, getting enough vegetables, getting enough fruit, getting enough protein, even getting enough sleep.

“Soccer is the hook,” said Jaime Alvarez, program manager for the Soccer for Success Program. “We slip the nutrition information in.”

But soccer alone isn’t much of a draw for many of the kids targeted by the program. Organizers don’t want to appeal just to the physically active kids. They want the kids who typically don’t excel at P.E.

“Soccer is the hook. We slip the nutrition information in.” — Jaime Alvarez

“We stress that it’s non-competitive,” Alvarez said. “Hispanic girls typically aren’t interested in playing soccer. I know that from first-hand experience. They don’t know how. But we tell them that we’ll teach them how to play. They will learn the skills they need.”

Overweight kids are especially encouraged to take part in the program. Alvarez acknowledges that body image is a sensitive subject for many kids, as is desire for fitness.

“We had a child at one school walk up to his coach and complain about how awkward he felt because he was the biggest child on the field,” Alvarez said. “But the coach said ‘Look, you signed up for this. If you stick with it, you won’t be the biggest for long.’ ”

At every school, there’s a waiting list to participate.

“We work with the administrators at each school to identify the appropriate participants,” Goldin-Dubois said. “In some cases, it’s first-come, first-served. In other cases, they targeted specific populations within the school.”

Mentoring, family engagement also critical

Besides physical activity and nutrition education, the program has two other components: mentoring and family engagement. Organizers want the children to bond with their coaches, and they want the coaches to teach more than soccer skills. And they want parents to reinforce those lessons at home.

At McGlone, while the children are out on the soccer field, moms waiting to pick them up can take part in a Zumba class. It’s just one more way to get families thinking about healthy lifestyles.

“This is an awesome program,” said Nikki Allen, P.E. teacher at McGlone and site coordinator for the program. “This is such a great opportunity for our kids, because most of them could never afford something like this otherwise.”

Classroom teachers report that the extra physical activity is having a positive impact on the children’s behavior during the school day. “They say they’re getting a lot of extra energy burned out of them on the playground, and they’re able to sit still during class,” Alvarez said.

Allen said the nutrition information seems to be taking root as well.

“I had one parent tell me her child refused to eat the chili dog she gave him for dinner because it was unhealthy. So she fixed him some chicken instead,” she said. “So I know this is connecting with the kids.”

What is the Children’s Corridor?

The Children’s Corridor is a 14-mile-long stretch from Northeast Denver to Green Valley Ranch that includes 13 Denver neighborhoods and one Aurora neighborhood. It has been identified by the Denver-based Piton Foundation as home to some of the most significant areas of need in the entire state. Of the more than 54,000 children living in these 14 neighborhoods in 2010, 35,000 of them lived in poverty or near-poverty.

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