Tuesday, August 2, 2011

South Bronx United And Uptown Soccer Academy

Cesar Diaz writes of the tremendous programming going on in New York City, and specifially in the South Bronx, by South Bronx United and the Uptown Soccer Academy.

With the rise of obesity and asthma mixed with low reading scores the children in the South Bronx and Washington Heights continue to produce, they are in danger of never reaching their full potential. Along with the breakdown of family dynamics and the elimination of after-school programs and non-profits, there’s a greater demand for the remaining agencies to provide more services with limited resources.

As much as I love New York City, I'm also aware that it's a city that can steal a child's innocence and aspiration to be somebody. Growing up in the Bronx during the 1980s, I witnessed my share of lunacy that most Americans would never understand. From abandoned buildings to the landfills of the South Bronx, I remember neighbors knocking on my door asking for a "fiver" so they could feed their craving to get high.

From the smash and grabs I witnessed in Fordham Road to the junkies nodding off in the graffiti-covered urine-smell train that I occasionally rode, that was my normal life in the South Bronx. After seeing two bullet holes in the family car, my parents made the decision to move to Arizona. If it wasn't for the strong family support system I was blessed with, who knows where I would have ended up had my family lacked the financial resources and willingness to literary pack up and move to another state?

While the streets and the subways appear cleaner than they did in the 80s, the South Bronx and Washington Heights remain to be one of the poorest areas in the United States. One thing I’ve always found ironic about the South Bronx is that while it’s recognized for its’ crime and poverty, it’s also the home of Major League Baseball’s richest team, the New York Yankees.

Whether the Yankees do enough for the Washington Heights and South Bronx communities with their wealth isn’t my business, but two non-profit organizations run by volunteers are certainly trying to make an impact. Since 2009, both South Bronx United (SBU) and Uptown Soccer Academy (USA) are in position to be that difference for neighborhood kids.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the privilege of meeting South Bronx United Executive Director Andrew So and Uptown Soccer Academy Executive Director David Sykes. Interesting enough, prior to meeting both directors, I had witnessed first hand the quality of services they provide for the children in their areas.

From my conversations with both men, I recognized that both are motivated and driven to provide better services in the Washington Heights and the South Bronx. In addition to their drive, both were resourceful in utilizing their network pool to recruit volunteers for their administrative and service areas.

Following a PDL match at Columbia University’s Baker Field, David and I took a long stroll as he educated me about Uptown Soccer Academy. “Along with offering a free service, we’re also trying to curb obesity while educating our players of the importance of proper dieting and nutrition,” he said.

“In addition to the services we offer, we try our best to provide an alternative where our players (7-14 years old) aren’t playing video games or hanging out with the wrong crowd. The harsh reality is that there are social and economic problems in Washington Heights which have been there for decades. Along with the playing our goal is also to provide the tools so our players can see that there’s more out there in the World other then what they’re accustomed to seeing in their communities on a regular basis.”

Throughout our walk, Sykes explained the long-term goals of Uptown Soccer Academy. They envision a near future where they'll be able to offer even more access to soccer playing opportunities and professional coaching to talented young athletes while providing a safe and positive learning environment for under-resourced youth in Washington Heights and Inwood.

Along with equipping their participants with the knowledge to make healthy lifestyle choices, Uptown Soccer Academy hopes to bridge the achievement gap with their educational and enrichment programs. By providing these services to their players, they hope this will empower them to be “agents of change” in their community by simply giving back through community service.

While some of the children of Washington Heights are being cared for by Uptown Soccer Academy, the children of the South Bronx are being tended to by South Bronx United.

Over at South Bronx United, they’re focused on Education, Health & Wellness, and Character Development. With working with children from 4 years old to 19 years old, South Bronx United currently serves over 500 kids.

While their character development and Health & Wellness programs are impressive, I was most impressed with their Educational Programs. Knowing the dropout rate in the South Bronx is extremely higher than the national average, it’s refreshing to see another soccer academy that isn’t focused only on winning.

As stated in their website:

The objectives of the Education Through Soccer component of South Bronx United are
(1) to help youth achieve academic success and graduate high school,
(2) to prepare youth for college and careers, and
(3) to ensure all youth attend college.

Following my conversations with Andrew and Carlos Bhanji about South Bronx United, I agreed to be a guest speaker for their career day. I spoke with players who were in Junior High and High School throughout the morning.

When I told them that I wrote for USSoccerPlayers.com, many of them asked if I was friends with Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, or Juan Agudelo. Once their excitement turned to disappoint upon the news that I wasn’t “cool” with any of those guys, they were able to focus and ask me about my career.

I explained to them the dedication and the seriousness it takes to be a writer as well the studying that goes behind it. Many of them were amazed with the work that goes into writing an article, picking maybe 4-5 photos are viewing hundreds, and the travel that many writers go through on a daily basis. Nevertheless, they seemed to enjoy listening to my stories and seemed appreciative that I answered all their questions. They were also excited to hear that I was writing a profile on South Bronx United.

When I asked them what it was they wanted the national audience of USSoccerPlayers.com to know about the South Bronx, many of them made it simple. Like kids all over the country, they too have dreams of going to college and becoming a professional someday because they want a better life.

To close out the day, three students were selected by Andrew to attend Friday’s USL-PRO F.C. New York (FCNY) match against the Wilmington Hammerheads at Belson Stadium over at St. Johns University. I had spoken with FCNY Team President Doug Petersen about the possibility of letting these three students cover the game from the press box so they could see the job firsthand. Petersen immediately agreed to it and arranged it himself.

Without going into much detail, the three chosen children did indeed cover Friday night’s FCNY 3-1 loss to the Wilmington Hammerheads. They learned the work and energy that it takes to be a sports writer. As they traveled back up to the South Bronx, they each had a tired smile in their faces.

The only thing that isn't being downsized in New York City is the need for volunteers, so if you're able to help South Bronx United or Uptown Soccer Academy please do so. While they've been able to hold their own in these difficult economic times, they still need our help.

To learn more about South Bronx United, visit: www.southbronxunited.org and for Uptown Soccer Academy, please go to: www.uptownsocceracademy.org

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