Adorning the corrugated metal siding of the otherwise nondescript gymnasium along Main Street in Manayunk is a series of painted emblems from soccer clubs around from the Philadelphia Union to the national teams of Jamaica and Thailand.
A large sign attached above bears the name of the Starfinder Foundation next to the painting of a multicolored soccer ball, around the corner two signs read “soccer for social change” and “leadership beyond the game.”
Starfinder, a nonprofit foundation that teaches soccer to underprivileged kids in Philadelphia, has also helped thousands of them, ages six to 18, along the path to graduate from high school and on to college careers.
Founded in 2002, the program involves between 550 and 600 kids every year along three age groups. To enter the program, children must meet the requirements for free or reduced lunch in the Philadelphia Public Schools.
Through the program, kids are taught the fundamentals of the sport as well as given arts exercises and other programs that are meant to supplement and encourage school activity.
“Success isn’t the amount of goals scored or success on the field so much as are they excelling in school have they set their sights on aspirational goals and have we given them means to achieve those goals,” said Heidi Warren, the program’s executive director.
Inside of the massive interior of the indoor gymnasium along Main Street in Manyunk are flags from far off places from Turkey to Brazil and South Africa. For the kids running the turf field though, the flags are a little piece of home.
In addition to serving underprivileged kids from the city, many of the participants at Starfinder come from more than 40 nationalities.
“Most of our kids love soccer so much,” Nick Chrisanthon, the program implementation director and former professional soccer player, said. “We have mostly a Latino and West African immigrant population, so their culture is inherent in having soccer being played, so we give them the outlet to play soccer and they give us the outlet to help them move forward in life.”
Chrisanthon, noted the positive life skills soccer helped with for the kids.
“Soccer, for as far as leadership and team building, is very important,” Chrisanthon said. “Part of being a successful team is being able to interact and work toward a common goal.”
According to statistics from the School District of Philadelphia, 64 percent of high schoolers in district-run schools graduated in four years or less. At some high schools, the four-year graduation rate was below 30 percent.
However, since 2008, 100 percent of high school seniors in regular attendance at Starfinder graduated high school, of which 94 percent have continued on to post-secondary education, a fact that both Warren and Chrisanthon dedicated to the nature of the students who enroll in the program.
“We understand there is self selection that they are already showing a level of motivation to get involved but we also feel that here is something special happening here that engages the kids and they feel committed and want to stay involved,” Warren said.
Warren also said the accessibility of soccer, as well as its worldwide appeal, make it the ideal sport to help use with children in the inner-city.
“You can play it anywhere,” Warren said. “All you need is some space and something that is either a ball or something like a ball, so it’s a play anywhere kind of sport.”
The program was founded by a man named Tony Williams in 2002 as a summer program for children, it soon grew to involve after-school programs that run from October to June inside the center’s 30,000 square foot facility that is a short drive down Main Street from Manayunk’s central business district.
Prior to its use for the Starfinder Foundation, the building was an Arthur Ash Youth Tennis and Education Camp which played a similar role is using athletics as outreach to Philadelphia youth. Now, the building hosts the Future Leaders for kids in elementary school, Junior Leaders for those in middle school and Senior Leaders for high school students. In addition, Soccer Girls Rule serves elementary and middle school girls.
In addition to soccer skills, the program teaches health and wellness, college and career training, tutoring and SAT preparation, as well as leadership building. The program encourages post-secondary education through college visits and meeting with professionals in a variety of fields from filmmaking to architecture.
“What we’re aiming to do is add a breadth of experience exposure for kids to opportunities to grow in an environment that is fun and engaging and challenging that doesn’t feel like more school but grabbing them through interest in soccer and helping them cultivate the sills that will support their success in all facets of life,” Warren said.
– Text and images by John Moritz and Brendan Menapace