I interviewed an upcoming soccer star today. He’s been playing since third grade in Cleveland, Ohio and has risen to regional and now national prominence. “I used to be timid and afraid of the ball. I changed by playing soccer,” explained Gonzalo Villafan proudly.

I should mention he is only 10 years old and the animated beneficiary of an America SCORES after school program that uses sports—specifically soccer—to reach out to kids in low income neighborhoods.

“At first some people would argue, and everyone gets confused. Then the coach gives direction…and we learned how to work as a team and communicate with each other.”

Amazingly, along with soccer, the kids are taught how to write poetry! Gonzalo said “…teammates and coaches pushed into my creation and that I not be afraid. I never wrote before. Just shy with other kids…then I express my feelings and make it into a poem.”

He wrote about the Balloon Boy fraud and recited his poem in front of 600 people back home. “They stood up on their seats and clapped and shouted.” Gonzalo was one of two youths chosen to represent Cleveland in the national recital. When is the last time you were brave enough to talk to a group that large?

Shayanna Love and Gonzalo Villifan present Sunil Gulati with a soccer ball for his support of America SCORES

Shayanna Love and Gonzalo Villifan present Sunil Gulati with a soccer ball for his support of America SCORES

Today he was in New York for the first time to be in a poetry slam at the auditorium of the New York Stock Exchange. He was in a group of 30 kids from around the country who rang the closing bell, met members of the New York Red Bulls soccer team, some other professional league soccer players, team owners and even Sunil Gulati, the president of the US Soccer Federation.

This all reminded me of a photographer I knew, Ben Fernandez, who taught ghetto kids how to take pictures to push them away from drugs, away from negative influences and thinking positively for themselves. It increased their self-esteem and gave them the confidence to try for more achievements. Angel Franco, became a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist. Fung Lam went to Harvard and became a doctor. Ben went on to found the New School’s photography program.

Another friend built metal robots that “talked” and helped autistic kids in hospitals respond to outside stimuli, when efforts by humans couldn’t penetrate their mental bubbles. So there are a number of ways to reach youngsters who have the odds stacked against them.

America SCORES fills a gap in urban areas with no after-school programs, where there are no sports offered in schools beyond a couple of hours of phys ed a week. Around 5000 kids are involved now in 15 cities, and over 39,000 have been touched since a soccer-loving D.C. schoolteacher, Julie Kennedy, founded a league for girls in 1994. What one person with vision can do!

Gonzalo after a poetry recital

Gonzalo after a poetry recital

Some studies estimate that 46% of school-age children will be overweight in 2010; and over 12 million youth read below grade level. America SCORES helps kids lose weight and improve their academic and writing skills. Almost half of the students in the program are from Hispanic/Latino backgrounds, and 29% are African Americans. To learn more, go to www.AmericaScores.org

Obviously I believe in the importance of good health, diet and exercise. Most people who play sports feel better, stand taller and benefit from the cardio. Using sports to change someone’s mental outlook and physical form is fantastic. Thank goodness there are programs like this one that are making a difference. I look forward to hearing about the future successes of Gonzalo and some of his fellow soccer player-poets.