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. Read the rest of this entry »

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