It’s an easy answer for Callie Schock on why the Sioux Falls Neighborhood Soccer league has been so successful after two seasons.
“Soccer is an international language, as we’ve learned, kids from every country, including now here, it’s becoming really the dominant sport,” Schock said.
The program that started last fall with students from Laura B. Anderson Elementary School in Sioux Falls has expanded to four schools in its second season.
Three new schools were added to the program. Terry Redlin Elementary students played at Meldrum Park, Garfield Elementary students played at Spellerberg Park and Cleveland Elementary students were at Frank Olson Park.
They joined Laura B. Anderson’s students, who played at Mansor-Pioneer Park.
It was a seven week long season for the elementary students, with second through fifth-grade boys and girls flocking to the parks every Saturday with their families to play soccer.
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The coaches ranged from those certified through Dakota Alliance Soccer Club to others that coached high school teams. Sioux Falls Police Chief Jon Thum even got in on the action and coached a team himself. But at Meldrum Park, students from Terry Redlin found themselves coached by a special group: The girls from the O’Gorman Girls’ Soccer Team.
“One of my coaches said, halfway through last week’s lesson, a little girl came over and hugged him around his leg and said, ‘I love this,'” Schock said.
Every site has between 50-75 students. They learn and play soccer for about 2 hours before having a small lunch. Schock said the lunch is usually provided by a community sponsor like a church. Special consideration goes into what they offer for lunch due to the diversity of the students. For example, Schock said they do not serve pork because many students are Muslim.
“What we’re trying to do is bring soccer and community connection back into Sioux Falls neighborhoods,” Schock said, “Come on a Saturday morning and have coffee and have a free lunch and just get to know each other a little bit better. “
‘It made my heart feel good’
McKenzie Kathleen Antonen, 17, of the O’Gorman girls soccer team, went to coach at Meldrum Park multiple times.
On her second visit she was recognized by a young boy who she described as shy during her first visit. That’s when she knew her time was making a difference.
“One kid, he’s from Ukraine. And he just came here and knew my name,” Antonen said, “It made my heart feel good.”
Antonen, along with her teammate Nora Jane Johnson, 15, said they’re new to coaching, but having been successful working with the students at Meldrum Park, they would give themselves a high rating.
“Ten out of 10, would I do this again? Oh yes, definitely,” Johnson said, “Keep playing soccer, it’s a fun sport and you make a lot of friends out of it.”
For the two high school athletes, it’s about giving back to their communities and inspiring the next generation. Antonen told the Argus Leader she’s been playing soccer since she was 3 and feels that any sport for kids is better than no sports, as long as they keep showing up.
“I liked seeing all the kids come back from the first time. I feel like that’s super important to be able to come back, to love a sport and just to be passionate about it,” she said.
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Schock said the younger kids seem to gravitate more towards high school students during the training sessions.
“Kids are excited and love having high school students. Of course, that brings a lot of energy. I think we have high school students at most of our sites,” she said.
With the second season officially done, Schock said the focus continues on recruiting more volunteers and diverse members of the community to help with the program.
But above all else, she said the goal is to unite communities around Sioux Falls, one soccer game, one park and one school at a time.
“We’d love to have anyone who’s interested come help us reach more kids in Sioux Falls,” Schock said.
Got a story idea from your community? Email reporter Alfonzo Galvan at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GalvanReports.