At 11:30 on a Saturday morning, you can find junior forward Kerri Eden of UR Women’s Soccer encouraging a group of yearning young girls, all smiling from ear to ear in their multi-colored cleats, to do their best star jump.
They chant: “I’m a star.”
Eden and her cohort sport pink shirts adorned with a lanky stick figure and the words “Soccer Girls Rule” during their weekly clinics.
This collective forms the organization Grassroot Soccer. The group incorporates two prongs of programming for young children within the Rochester community, which includes seasonal weekend soccer clinics and leagues for young girls from 4-12 years old, along with implementing a series of health curriculum sessions for older children at the nearby East High School.
The group began in 2011 after third year medical student Michael Barnes connected with Deon Rogers, a community member and President of the River Flow Soccer Club, the only inner city soccer club in western New York.
The organization has participants from a variety of University students. Attracted to its mission are UR Varsity soccer players, former footballers, Premier League aficionados, and public health advocates.
“It was up to us to get them interested and to pay attention,” senior Jack Battaglia said. “It was a lot more active work than I expected. ”
Health curriculum director sophomore Rafal Mazur has integrated games into the sessions to make learning about HIV and AIDs more engaging.
“[The children] walk around the room exchanging fluids, and after five minutes doing so, there’s no sign water is in there,” he said. “By the end of the exercise and discussion they realize this is how easy it is for HIV to spread.”
The dedication of Mazur and his peers is obvious, and it shows through the parent reviews and testimonials of the program over the years.
“The summer 2015 season was my daughter first year playing GR Soccer and what an amazing program!! Each week I saw my daughter and learn and grow,” parent Monique Sullivan wrote on the organization’s Facebook page.
Also on the Facebook page, aside from updates concerning the organization and promotional videos and photos of all the student leaders, there is one video, which has amassed over 600 views. The girls whip and nae-nae to the hip-hop hit “Watch Me.”
Watch the video, their energy is contagious.
I observed a similar energy during a clinic, while 8-year-olds Amani and Cameron were passing the ball during a drill. A younger brother of another child was interrupting their flow. It was Amani who garnered the confidence to shoo the child away. She wanted to play.
“My daughter likes the girl-power feel,” her mother Jaimi Washington said. “She can do anything.”
Confidence and empowerment are the heart and soul of the group. Its weekly clinics have given its young women determination, a sense of self and socialization.
Second-grader Maya Payton found the program after the unexpected passing of her younger brother. Her mother Eleonor yearned for her daughter to “be socializing and feeling good about herself.”
Payton mentioned her daughter’s very special relationship with senior Paige Gloster, the group’s vice president. She recounted a moment when her daughter was given a private lesson from the varsity soccer forward during a summer session.
”It was just the two of them. I started running around the track to get exercise. I noticed they were laughing. Paige was teaching her some very high level things. Paige kept looking at me saying: ‘watch her, watch her’,” Payton said. “Maya idolizes Paige. My daughter is interracial, very similar to Paige, I don’t know if that’s what it is, but she idolizes her.“
On the pitch and off, the group brings all walks of life together, and miraculously leaves anyone who observes their work empowered and optimistic about the future for young women in light of trying times.
It is clear that the members of this organization are dedicated to changing young lives, and the benefits are mutual. But what unites these UR students is their love of soccer, and the aspiration they all have to empower others to share that love.
“Everybody Talks” is a radio show on WRUR’s the Sting that highlights women’s involvement in sports and the social issues that surround athletics. You can listen to it every Friday from 1–2 p.m. on thesting.wrur.org.