Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Brendan Grady ’09 and Evan Nesterak ’09, are at the forefront of the new Chester Upland Soccer for Success Program. The program is a branch of the nationwide Soccer for Success initiative run by the US Soccer Foundation, which works to teach children in underserved areas how to play soccer as well as develop healthy nutritional habits.
“Soccer for Success is essentially an after-school soccer program that uses soccer as a hook to promote healthy lifestyles,” said Grady, a program assistant and coach.
Headed by Widener University men’s soccer coach, Brent Jacquette, the program is one of dozens across the country, each of which is funded by a $200,000 grant from the US Soccer Foundation through the Social Innovation Fund.
Chester’s branch of Soccer for Success began in the fall of 2012, and today the program runs after school soccer practices three times a week in seven of Chester’s elementary schools. The program works with almost 450 students, and Grady said “the goal is to be at every single school in Chester in a year or two.”
Grady’s interest in this work caused him to move back to Philadelphia from Nashville when Jaquette asked him to come work with Soccer for Success in 2012. Grady enlisted Nesterak, a teammate from their days on the Swarthmore men’s soccer team, to help organize and coach with the group. Grady is also currently an assistant coach for the Swarthmore team.
Nesterak, who helped start the Chester Garden Project as a student at Swarthmore, describes coaching and imparting healthy life practices in Chester’s youth as “a daunting task.”
“Chester definitely has problems with health. […] It’s obviously not a new problem, it wasn’t a new problem when we started the garden,” he said.
Teaching children about nutrition and healthy eating choices is especially difficult when many of Chester’s residents don’t have access to fresh food, or even a grocery store.
Grady said he thinks “a grocery store is about to go in this year, but it’s been 25, 30 years that there hasn’t been a grocery store in Chester,” said Grady.
For this reason, Nesterak’s main goal for the program is to use it as an avenue to bring more local foods into Chester. The program is looking for ways to connect the local foods movement with Soccer for Success.
“I think it would be great if we could really connect the local farms and local food community with the program,” said Nesterak, who hopes to integrate farm-to-table events into the program, “I think sharing a meal together among community members is a really easy, enjoyable way to get people to connect, and it really brings the soccer program into the community more.”
However, the program is also looking to affect change beyond exercise and healthy eating.
“Our goal within the program is to let kids know that they do have choices,” Grady said. “Some kids already view themselves as a bad kid, so [we are] helping them try to redefine their role as a soccer player, as an athlete, as a good kid.”
Thus far, both Grady and Nesterak say the results have been promising.
“The kids have responded very well […] it’s pretty amazing how much you get to know the kids and how much they get to know you,” Nesterak said.
For Grady, the individual participant’s responses have been the most inspiring. “I had a little player, Mikaya, who’s a first grader… She hadn’t played soccer before the Soccer for Success program, and she came up to me one day, and told me she had been playing one of the games from the program at home in her neighborhood. As a coach, that’s the greatest feeling in the world,” he said.
For more quantitative results, the program also runs several tests to measure the players’ improvement. “We do pre-testing and post-testing, testing their fitness, body mass index (BMI). We also do a nutrition survey,” Grady said.
For the fitness component, Grady, has recruited some of Swarthmore’s varsity soccer players to help with some of this testing. They are working specifically with running the pacer test, which is how they test fitness.
“It was so much fun. [The kids] actually liked the idea of racing each other a lot, they were really into it…They were all cheering for each other which was pretty cute,” said Tyler Zon ‘16, a member of the men’s soccer team who volunteered with the program last week.
Beyond fitness testing, Swarthmore students are getting involved in other capacities as well. In Mark Wallace’s class, “Radical Jesus,” students were offered the opportunity to work with Soccer for Success for their community-based learning project. The course, which encourages students to look at what Wallace describes as “contemporary, cultural models of Jesus,” aims to help students develop their sense of civic engagement.
Wallace sees the benefit of the program as being not only for the participants, but for the volunteers as well. Through it, the volunteers are able to connect to the community in a way that develops their own capacity for leadership. “Being able to be a mentor to a young person as she tries to realize her dreams and ambitions is really a valuable thing,” said Wallace.
Grady and Nesterak hope to get even more Swarthmore students involved with the program in the future, either in the capacity of paid assistant coaches or simply volunteers. However, their most pressing task at the moment is to re-apply for national funding at the end of this year.
Assuming they do receive additional funding, everybody involved has lofty goals for the future of the program.
“I’m pretty idealistic,” said Grady. “I’m hoping that soccer really does take off in Chester. […] I’m hoping also through the family engagement events that the program can be a center for community activism. […] I hope the soccer program can be that place to just bring people together.”