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Free Camps Help Level Playing Field for Future US Soccer Stars

DC Scores summer camp participants and coaches celebrate a goal at the Tubman Elementary School playing field in Washington, D.C. (Photo by J. Nazar/VOA)

The happy shouts of children participating in a summer soccer camp emanate from the Tubman Elementary School playing field in Washington D.C.

Pay-to-play soccer structures can make it challenging for kids from low-income families to play competitive, organized soccer in the United States. DC Scores, a nonprofit organization, tries to help level the playing field by offering free high-quality soccer camps like this one to disadvantaged children.

“DC Scores has given me lots of chances in life,” says Christopher, 10, who has been with DC Scores for three years.

DC Scores provides various opportunities to children from low-income families, serving close to 3,000 kids annually. Its programs can be found in more than 42 designated Title I schools in the Washington area. Schools receive Title I classification when they serve a large number of children from low-income families.

Students between the third and eighth grades can join DC Scores’ after-school programs at their respective elementary and middle schools. In fall and spring, participants practice soccer twice a week and have a game at the end of the school week.

DC Scores group photo commemorating another day of soccer camp. (Photo by J. Nazar/VOA)
DC Scores group photo commemorating another day of soccer camp. (Photo by J. Nazar/VOA)

On non-soccer days, kids either write slam poetry or participate in service learning projects such as neighborhood cleanups, awareness campaigns, or raising money for the homeless.

During the summer, camps run for six weeks. DC Scores also offers outside opportunities for its participants to join competitive teams.

Meaningful partnerships

Christopher, who skillfully dribbles down the field, bypassing four players on the opposing team to score a goal, is considered one of the most talented players by coaches, who say the boy has a knack for scoring goals.

“They gave me the chance to practice with D.C. United,” Christopher says when discussing soccer opportunities in the program.

DC Scores has an official partnership with D.C. United, Washington’s professional soccer club, and DC Scores’ participants have attended D.C. United tryouts.

The non-profit also has a partnership with the Stoddert Club, a youth travel and recreational soccer club in the nation’s capital that offers financial assistance to DC Scores kids who wish to play in their league.

These partnerships enable DC Scores participants to pursue soccer more seriously if they choose to. However, the organization’s impact stretches way beyond the soccer field.

Challenging start in life

Some of the Individuals who participate in DC Scores come from unstable homes.

“Twenty percent of kids in the program move houses during the year,” says Bethany Henderson, executive director of DC Scores.

Rob was accepted into the program as an elementary school student. He's now on the DC Scores coaching staff and expects to join a semi-professional team.

“I grew up in a broken home. DC Scores provided me with a way out...There are lots of drugs in these areas,” he says, adding that, for many kids, this is their first time playing sports in an organized environment.

“To have that little structure, I think the majority of our kids haven’t had that before joining our program,” says Michael Goldstein, director of marketing and communications.

Mentors For life

DC Scores places a strong emphasis on building strong relationships between coaches and players. Every year, coaches receive 17 hours of soccer and youth development training.

DC Scores Coach Popsie Lewis (right) with one of his players at Tubman Elementary School in Washington DC. (Photo by J. Nazar/VOA)
DC Scores Coach Popsie Lewis (right) with one of his players at Tubman Elementary School in Washington DC. (Photo by J. Nazar/VOA)

“The priority of this training is to ensure DC Scores kids build deep relationships with their coaches,” says Henderson, the DC Scores executive director.

Coach Popsie Lewis stands out among his peers in this regard. In 2016, he was selected as a 2016 MLS WORKS Community MVP for his mentorship efforts.

“Moments like that tell you to keep doing what you are doing,” Lewis says.

A widely popular coach in the program, Lewis is adored by players for his ability to connect with them.

“He has charisma and an ability to make anyone feel comfortable. He’s got that special something that draws people to him,” says Goldstein. “When they go to high school, he continues to keep in touch and serve as a mentor for his kids.”

Shared experiences

“One of my favorite things about DC Scores is being able to make new friends from new teams,” says Christopher, the talented 10-year-old who has been in the program for three years.

In general, there is a strong camaraderie among DC Scores kids.

“DC Scores is like a brotherhood. Once a part of DC Scores, always a part of it,” says Rob.

Henderson isn’t surprised that the children develop a huge attachment to the program.

“By designing a fun and safe space for the kids, DC Scores becomes an important part of kid’s identity,” she says.