Twenty five years ago, an elementary school teacher in Washington, D.C. saw that many of her fifth-graders had nothing to do in the hours after school. She invited them to stay after school and play soccer – and when the weather turned cold, to explore poetry and spoken word performances to keep the group intact.
That combination – along with community service – form the pillars of a fast-growing non-profit now known as America SCORES that serves more than 13,000 students a year, at 311 schools, in twelve cities. Approximately 85% of participants are living at or below the poverty line.
In the fall and spring, students practice and play soccer in leagues, along with exploring creative writing and composing their own poetry that they eventually perform in competitive poetry slams. In the spring season, America SCORES teams also research and perform community service projects.
This week, America SCORES will be introduced in many American homes during the FIFA Women’s World Cup, with some help from Volkswagen. Using its own advertising time, Volkswagen, working alongside with America SCORES, created a 30-second spot for America SCORES that will air during the FIFA Women’s World Cup, alongside Volkswagen’s own “Drive Bigger” campaign.
“We’ve known of the good work America SCORES does for some time,” says Jim Zabel, vice president of marketing for Volkswagen of America. “They have a fantastic story to tell, and by producing this ad, Volkswagen hopes to demonstrate how all of us can drive something bigger than ourselves in our own communities.”
In Washington, the founding chapter, of America SCORES, works with 3,000 low-income boys and girls across the city every year. The DC SCORES program – the only consistent, grade-school public soccer league in the district – has proven so popular that dozens of schools are on a wait list for new sites.
“It’s a mind-body-soul education for the kids,” said Michael Holstein, director of marketing and communications for DC SCORES. “It gives them athletic confidence and helps them speak and write well. They also benefit the community with a year-round effort that transcends all those elements on their own.”
Charity Blackwell, the director of creative arts and education at DC SCORES, says most children come to the program for the soccer, something many couldn’t afford to play otherwise. “But when they get into writing and communicating with each other is when the light bulbs come on,” she says. “Here’s a unique place where they can work together, take their emotions and express themselves in a safe space in the classroom.”
Blackwell also notes that the competition around poetry can be as challenging as the competition on a soccer field. Once they get the basics of poetry, the DC SCORES players receive coaching and feedback from spoken-word artists and compete to reach a city-wide poetry slam where their best efforts will be judged.
“It’s all about mixing public speaking and theater, with their poetry,” says Blackwell. “They’re judged on their written work, their presentation, their hand gestures, and voice projection. Some may start out thinking poetry’s not a sport, but it can get pretty tough.”
“We’ll see kids who are great athletes but shy in public, who will get up on stage and just come alive, or kids who aren’t great at soccer excel in spoken word,” adds Holstein. “It’s a cool experience to see kids be more than they thought they were.”