Sweaty from chasing a soccer ball on a muggy Friday night, Bobby King tosses his cap aside and charges into the pack of tiny soccer players. He lowers a hand and offers congratulations to the eager bunch.
On the other end of the field at the Clarkston Community Center, volunteer Michael Valverde is busy making sure his teenage players are showing sportsmanship and keeping their shoes tied.
The scene, which repeats itself every Friday night, is a sign that Soccer in the Streets is making a difference in DeKalb County. The non-profit organization, which celebrated 20 years in Atlanta last weekend, uses soccer as a way to teach life skills to children who otherwise may not have access to the sport.
Soccer in the Streets had summer sessions beginning in 2007 in DeKalb County and because of the great amount of interest, pick-up games are now scheduled year-round as the weather permits.
“It’s a great concept to use soccer as a platform for teaching life skills,” Valverde said. “The program goes to where the kids are.”
Valverde, a DeKalb resident, coaches a Soccer in the Streets team in College Park and recently got involved in helping with the weekly pick-up games in DeKalb.
“I grew up in a blue-collar family, but my dad could always come up with the few bucks to get me into soccer,” Valverde said. “I remember the impact that it had on me to be part of a team.”
The DeKalb program drew 50 to 60 players weekly over the summer, and more than 20 attended a recent session. Parents can register their children for free into the SITS program.
Leticia Donegan, who recently brought her 5-year-old son Zion to the community center for the first time, was pleased with the instruction and organization SITS provided.
“It’s well organized, he’s having fun and the games are age appropriate,” Donegan said. “A lot of places charge half your salary to get your kids into sports, but this is offered for free.”
SITS, in partnership with the Refugee Resettlement and Immigration of Atlanta, also has an afterschool program at Avondale Elementary School and is looking into expanding into DeKalb middle schools, according to SITS communications director Jason Longshore.
“We want to try to target middle schools because they have the greatest needs and the least amount of resources,” Longshore said. “Gangs really get involved at the middle school level and offering Soccer in the Streets would be a good way to deter that.”
Dunwoody High graduate and former Atlanta Silverbacks players Jordy Broder has been a volunteer with SITS long enough to see the impact it has on local communities.
“The kids are lucky to have something like this to help them go in the right direction,” Broder said. “When I was growing up I saw kids go in the wrong direction with drugs or alcohol. Soccer in the Streets is super valuable because it helps kids go in a positive direction as well as learn soccer.”