Just a few blocks away from the nightlife and culture of Main Street, the Starfinder Foundation is housed in a large, unassuming, blue warehouse. More than 600 Philadelphia youth take part each year in the foundation’s soccer program to learn about leadership, team building and the world’s most popular sport.
“If we can use soccer to get them in the building to get what we want out of them, it actually works out very, very well so we get the best of both worlds. They get some soccer training to get better and they also get to become a little bit better as a person with their life skills and preparing for the future,” said Nick Chrisanthon, the program implementation director of the foundation.
Chrisanthon, a former defender for the Philadelphia Kixx professional indoor soccer team, worked with the program full time for the past four years. In that time, Chrisanthon said he noticed definite changes in the time he’s been there.
“When I first came here it was a little bland, a little dry,” he said. “Today it’s a lot more inspiring and the kids are much more engaged, because its more hands-on as opposed to lecturing and sort of preaching.”
The program focused on developing the child as a whole rather than just the athlete. The hands-on approach that Chrisanthon mentioned is one reason the children respond so well to the instruction. Instead of running drills where the children are yelled at and told what they’re doing wrong, the Starfinder staff used a friendlier approach to learning soccer.
“They teach techniques—they teach basic fundamentals unknowingly with games,” said Yomi Awodesu, the founder of the Germantown Soccer Club. “Kids are doing those games and repeating those games makes it easier for them to receive information instead of being very aggressive with them.”
Awodesu said his experience with the Starfinder Foundation is what led to starting his own program, which brings the Germantown children to the Starfinder building as they lack a facility of their own.
As the program changed, it became focused on nutrition and healthy eating.
“If my kids go to restaurants now or go to the supermarket, they do read on the labels to see what we’re buying or what we shouldn’t be buying,” Awodesu said.
While the warehouse looked old and battered from the outside, the interior of the Foundation was brightly lit, with a large balcony overlooking a regulation-size turf soccer field. On the field, dozens of children played games and learned drills under the watchful eye of the instructors.
One such instructor is Daniel Moreno, whose experience with Starfinder came not just as a teacher, but as a former student of the program.
“There are people from all around the world, so here (the children) get at least a chance to see all these different cultures,” Moreno said.
The foundation also teaches kids how to cooperate with others and be respectful of differing cultures. Chrisanthon said he believes that soccer lends itself perfectly to teaching participants about diversity due to its international fan base.
“I think with the nature of what we do, we tend to get a cultural diversity here. At first there was a lack of understanding of people and what their norms and cultures are,” Chrisanthon said. “To expose them to that kind of stuff really gives them more sensitivity to people different from themselves.”
Chrisanthon said that Moreno was one of those really special kids who understand what community is about.
“He is a great role model for the kids because a lot of the kids know that he came through the program and see what he’s become,” Chrisanthon said.
Baiyina Brown has brought her children each week to the program for the past four years–in part, she said, because of the reinforcement they are provided with during practice.
“They’d come every day if they could. They love it here,” Brown said. “They love all the coaches and trainers. It’s a really good, positive and nurturing environment.”
Despite the educational and athletic training each child received from the program during practice, it all came back to the love of the sport.
“It’s not all about soccer–if they’re smiling as they leave here, that’s great. I just want them to have fun,” Moreno said.