Programs to help more kids play soccer are making Austin a soccer town

Art of the Gala Oct 23 Austin
Kaitlin Swarts Upper Ninety

While the chance of Austin having a professional soccer team seems inevitable, a network of grassroots nonprofits is bridging the gap for kids who love the game but have less access to organized play. In a city where poverty disproportionately affects people of color, sometimes those kids who come from soccer-rich cultures are less likely to participate in organized soccer.

“The youth clubs are doing a great job,” said David Markley, the founder of the former Austin Aztex professional soccer team, which originally partnered with the Austin Soccer Foundation. “But the question is, how can we supplement and augment what they’re doing to reach more kids?”

The Austin Soccer Foundation funds local nonprofits that address that gap, but also supports programs like a women’s team at the Texas School for the Deaf, which has students who enjoy playing but struggle to play on teams where instruction is only verbal. “The reality is that 99 percent of these young people will never play in college or as a professional,’ said Markley. a past-president of the foundation, “but every person that does play has the opportunity to experience fitness, grow their social skills, understand their identity, and just enjoy the game.”

The Austin area has a number of opportunities for young people to play and perfect their soccer games, but the cost and access can be prohibitive. Recreational youth soccer clubs can cost more than $100 to register for a single two-month season, and development clubs where teams are led by professional coaches and offer more in-depth instruction, can cost even more. In addition, West Austin offers more opportunities than other neighborhoods along Austin’s Eastern Crescent, the area from Rundberg Lane in North Austin to Dove Springs in South Austin.

Lonestar Soccer Club, one of the region’s most popular soccer leagues, provides nearly $350,000 in financial aid to more than 340 players in Central Texas, says Seth Sather, development director for Lonestar. “Most people don’t know we’re a 501(c)(3) and that the majority of the funds we raise go toward under=served communities in East Austin. Sixty-five percent of our financial aid recipients live east of I-35.”

Another nonprofit, this one a start-up gaining ground, is Soccer Assist, founded by Aaron Rochlen, professor and program director at the UT-Austin department of educational psychology. “The problem we are trying to solve is the fact that there are far too many youth in our community, and others, who are not able to afford participating in high-level, well-organized soccer leagues and actives, like camps,” he said. “The consequences of this is these kids are then missing out on the multiple benefits of team play, both in terms of their soccer goals and potential and more psycho-social benefits.” Soccer Assists raises money to provide scholarships for under-served kids to join soccer clubs and offers grants to help improve soccer fields. Since 2015, it has provided about $23,000 in scholarships.

At East Austin College Prep, another new nonprofit called Upper Ninety lures students with the game of soccer, but leverages it to help them grow emotionally and socially. “Soccer is really just the beginning of what we do,” said founder Kaitlin Swarts, an Austinite who grew up playing soccer in Austin, through college, and continues to play alongside the kids in her program today.

Taking its cues from proven methods in restorative justice and social-emotional learning practices, Upper Ninety uses team circles, mindfulness skills, and other tools to lead students through exercises that help them deal with what they face on the field and off. “Soccer is a sport that just naturally builds a culture of inclusiveness and facilitates a strong relationship among players and coaches,” said Swarts. “We’re just taking that to the next level and giving kids a safe space to talk about what’s going on in their lives.”

These and other nonprofits are forming a network of support that will bring more people into soccer and lift the entire soccer community, says Markley. “We could all quit now and claim success,” he said. “The challenge for each of us is in further developing our organizations so they provide broader, lasting impact.”

Sather adds that in having a professional soccer team, the entire landscape of soccer in Central Texas would change. “Not only would our youth be able to have a clear development pathway, they’d be able to keep their talent ‘local’,” he said. “It would be a game-changer both literally and figuratively for those youth on the East Side and across Central Texas as a whole.”

PHOTO: A group of students in the Upper Ninety program.

NOTE: A version of this article also appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on March 4, 2018.

Art of the Gala Oct 23 Austin
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