The pandemic has been hard on all kids. For some, it’s meant having to forego overnight camps and family vacations, amusement parks and beaches. For others, like some of the players on coach Jakeema Burton’s youth soccer team, it has meant homelessness, food insecurity, not knowing where or when they’d next sleep in a bed or find a hot meal.
“Before Covid, a lot of the families were having financial hardships. Some families were having difficulty getting food. Covid made those things harder,” Burton says one summer afternoon via Zoom.
Burton and Brianna Banks are just two of the 40-some coaches at Kensington Soccer Club (KSC), the North Philly-based program that supports youth through free or pay-what-you-can soccer clinics, camps, recreation leagues, travel teams, and after-school programs.
All KSC programs incorporate violence prevention, health and nutrition education; the heart of the program is the mentorship that’s woven throughout it, from volunteers and staff.
Teaming with Up2Us Sports
Burton and Banks are also among a handful of KSC coaches who are part of Up2Us Sports, the first and largest national service program for sports in the U.S.
Up2Us Sports trains and places hundreds of coaches in youth sports organizations across the country every year; 80 percent of their coaches are people of color, and 70 percent come from within the impoverished neighborhoods they serve.
Its mission is to use the power of sports to help kids and communities heal; every coach receives 35 hours of trauma-informed and youth development training, and the program commonly plants roots in new cities by partnering with like-minded organizations already doing the work on the ground.
It was a no-brainer for Up2Us Sports to collaborate with KSC in 2012: Both organizations are committed to bringing joy and opportunities to kids through sports.
“When we look at some of the challenges facing contemporary America and the city of Philadelphia, we see these entrenched issues of poverty and racism and what kind of impact they’ve had on mental health. Now we add to it Covid and the heightened awareness from the George Floyd killing, and you only compact the mental stress and trauma,” says Paul Caccamo, Up2Us Sports’ founder. Caccamo is based in New York, but his Philly roots run deep: His parents graduated from South Philly High, and the city remains dear to his heart.
The idea with Up2Us Sports, Caccamo says, was to take a nontraditional provider—a coach—and leverage their role to shape kids’ lives. Inside of every child is the same potential, the same exact dreams, the same hopes, he says; what’s different is their opportunities.
And what frustrates Caccamo is how, as a culture, “we accept that when a child lives in a neighborhood where they have great academics, great sports programs, great arts programs, great science and STEM programs, there are these parents who [believe] My child is gifted,” he says. “But when you have schools that do not offer that level of cultivation of the same human potential, when you have neighborhoods that don’t have the infrastructure anymore around sports, arts, STEM, think how many discoveries don’t get made in terms of a child’s potential. And somehow we have allowed that to happen, to go hand-in-hand with urban poverty. We have to rebuild these opportunities.”
One way to do it, he saw, was through sports.
“It’s Always Been a Support System for Me”
Burton, who grew up in North Philly, says sports certainly gave her life purpose. “I didn’t really have a plan for what I wanted to do in life until I started playing sports. I started playing soccer and then I got connected to Kensington Soccer Club when I was in high school, “ she says.
The program helped her refocus and figure out what she wanted to do with her life. “It’s always been a support system for me, whether I needed help with school or I needed help in my personal life, and then for the kids I coach, it’s been the same thing. So it was really important that we keep the program going during the pandemic.”
When Covid-19 shut down KSC’s in-person programs, Burton and Banks immediately recognized the need to maintain contact with their players, the 12- and 19-year-old girls they coach on travel teams and have known for years.
“A lot of parents have to work two and three jobs to make ends meet, so during this, a lot of our players have just been in the house while their parents are out working. Having those Zoom meetings and doing those check-ins is often their only interaction with people,” Burton says.
They were the first KSC coaches to develop an online exercise program and organize workouts and hangouts by Zoom. They checked in on their players twice a week, to see how they were doing and what they needed. And while many of us have the luxury of Zoom fatigue, for these players, the online connection felt like a lifeline.
“A lot of parents have to work two and three jobs to make ends meet, so during this, a lot of our players have just been in the house while their parents are out working. Having those Zoom meetings and doing those checkins is often their only interaction with people,” Burton says.
While Burton and Banks focused on their players, leadership at Kensington Soccer Club, including Pat Hardy, whose son founded KSC in 2010, got to work organizing a Cares and Concerns Committee, surveying more than 1,500 families in their network about their new and urgent needs, and connecting them to information like where to get meals and Chromebooks, how to get help applying for unemployment and rental assistance. They sent soccer balls and ball pumps to families who didn’t have them.
The Support Goes Both Ways
Amaryllis Rodriguez, 18, recently graduated from Walter B. Saul High School. She grew up in Kensington, down the block from KSC’s clubhouse, and has been playing soccer with KSC since she was in the seventh grade. She says Burton and Banks have always been there for her.
“They always made me feel more than what I am,” she says. “When I first started off and I was the youngest and I wasn’t really good like the rest of my teammates, they would give me extra help and would encourage me, they wouldn’t let me quit. If I would miss a couple of practices they’d call and check up on me and tell me to come and make sure I’m ok.”
“The girls, they give me inspiration,” says Burton. “The neighborhoods they live in are not the best neighborhoods, a lot of negative things go on, and it’s a way for them to get away from all of that. And I love it.”
She says during the pandemic, they’re showing that same dedication. Back in June, Rodriguez’s twin brother left for the Marines; her coaches regularly checked in on her, giving her words of comfort and reassurance.
Burton and Banks are more than coaches, Rodriguez says; they’ve become role models, and friends. They helped her through the college process, and have been checking in to make sure Rodriguez has what she needs to start her first semester, albeit remotely, this fall.
While Banks and Burton change the lives of girls like Rodriguez, the players have forever changed their coaches’ lives.
“The girls, they give me inspiration,” says Burton. “Whenever I’m feeling down, coaching is an outlet for me and an outlet for them too. The neighborhoods they live in are not the best neighborhoods, a lot of negative things go on, and it’s a way for them to get away from all of that. And I love it.”
Banks also plans to devote her career to youth; a first team all-American at Penn State Brandywine, where she scored over 100 goals before graduating last year, Banks is now getting her master’s at West Chester University while working at Hunter Elementary School in Kensington, supporting children with mental health challenges.
She’s seen her power to help heal, and she believes in the strength of youth who come from the most challenged backgrounds.
“A lot of them come from families with substance abuse and alcohol abuse, and they still have the courage to come to soccer and put a smile on their face. The big thing about these kids is that they’re resilient, and you can’t tell from looking at them that they’re going through so much. They’re just really strong kids. They don’t have a lot of resources, and yet they use whatever they can to get through.”Header photo: Jakeema Burton (L) and Brianna Banks (R) with KSC youth | Photo by Pat Hardy