More than 1,000 Buffalo school children are participating in a free, after-school soccer program. 'Soccer for Success' provides physical activity and nutritional lessons to city kids.
On Tuesday evening, Mayor Byron Brown will appear at Durant Park with 'Soccer for Success' to offer a "ceremonial soccer kick" as program leaders announce its ongoing success. WBFO Focus on Education reporter Eileen Buckley profiles how the city has also worked to transform abandoned fields into renewed sites for children to play and learn.
In a quiet South Buffalo neighborhood some children gathered, kicking around a soccer ball at Durant Park. They were waiting to begin a session of 'Soccer for Success.' Thanks to a collaboration between The Independent Health Foundation, Buffalo Soccer Club and the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, this national program has expanded to 23 sites.
"In the past three years we almost doubled. We started at 12 sites. We're up to 23 sites. We're very excited about that accomplishment for many more children that we're able to help," said Carrie Meyer, Executive Director of Independent Health Foundation.
Buffalo is one of 30 communities in the United States that provides this program for low-income children ages six through 14.
"It is a 12-week program where we do 12 weeks in the fall and 12 weeks in the spring at the same location," said Meyer.
While the program is designed to combat childhood obesity, it is providing much more to these children.
"It's really trying to showcase, and that's what we train them on, why it's so important to stay away from those bad influences such as drugs and drinking and violence. Why it's important to be a good citizen and what they can bring to the table," noted Meyer.
Parent Jennifer Tavoni of South Buffalo is the mother of 9-year-old Steven who plays in the program.
"It's a free program which we all know there's a lot of low-income families," said Tavoni. "And it is a perfect opportunity to get him into sport where we may have not been able to do that."
Tavoni said it allows her son the opportunity to play with kids his age, it helps him to avoid others who might be a 'bad influence'. It allows him an outlet for his boyhood energy, provides exercise and healthy eating tips.
"He'll come home from soccer practice and he'll go mom today, we were told we have to eat one apple, one banana -- he goes everyday," said Tavoni.
James Ristau of South Buffalo was watching his 8-year old nephew play in the program, explaining how it provides nutritional tips to the children.
"Coming over here they initially had the vegetables and the fruit and passed it out, so you knew where their mindset was right off the bat," noted Ristau.
But the program led to the revitalization of Durant Park something Ristau embraces.
"I grew up in South Buffalo and I've always been in this park, so this is probably the best I have seen this park," said Ristau.
"It's a new playground, you know it's safe. We only live right around the corner and it's nice to be able to walk right to this park and enjoys coming here and it's pretty safe overall."
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown noted how investing in the parks is making a major impact on neighborhoods
"We know from a perspective of developing our young people how critically important parts are," said Mayor Brown. "So that park before was really underutilized, it was invested in for a very long period of time."
Mayor Brown tells WBFO the city is working to duplicate the effort in impoverished neighborhoods city-wide. "And we are making those same kind of investments in parks across the city," said Brown.
Out on the field at Durant Park, we found Devin Smith of South Buffalo. He is a 6th grader at Global Concepts Charter School enjoying the benefits of the program.
"I like it because it's a nice way for all the other kids, that maybe can't afford the expensive soccer programs, to come together and play soccer," said Smith. "They've been teaching us about how many hours to sleep at night and how much glasses of water and good portions of food to eat.
Smith said he's learning about staying health and staying out of trouble. "Near where I live, I see a lot of young kids starting to smoke," stated Smith. "Their like oh you should come smoke a cigarette and I'm like no I've got soccer to go to.
Students are also receiving mentoring. Anna-Lesa Cavert is Executive Director with Algonquin Sports for Kids that participates with 'Soccer for Success',
"I think a lot of our coaches work with the kids on sort of behavioral things. So a lot of the kids in the city of Buffalo aren't getting a lot of physical education opportunities, so teaching them how to behave on a team, how to be responsible -- all kind of life lessons that you get on a sports field that you might not get in a classroom," said Cavert.
Steven Weaver is a head coach and site manager watching the children transform and mature.
"Most of these kids, it's their first time playing soccer. It's also their first time on any type of a team," said Weaver. "Seeing them when the first come in and seeing them kicking around the soccer ball and going towards working to be not only a better soccer player, but growing as themselves -- it's really amazing."
And more importantly -- the program is providing -- happiness and fun. We talked to some of the youngest in the program. One of the kids, Savannah, said she loves playing soccer.
"I like vegetables and you get to kick the ball and score and get it in the net!," she said