On Tuesday, in association with the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, adidas, Etihad Airways and the US Soccer Foundation, NYCFC launched the first 10 of 50 mini-pitches across the five boroughs.
One of the men to spearhead this New York City Soccer Initiative (NYCSI) was Paul Jeffries, NYCFC’s Director of Community Development.
This is his story…
The happiest days of my life were in a playground playing football between the ages of 6 and 11 with my friends, not thinking about anything, just playing the game in its purest form. To be able to bring that joy to other kids across the city is an amazing gift and it can serve them for a lifetime.
The main thing for me was to make sure that the community felt connected and part of this initiative. At the fundamental level, that the kids were enjoying this new playspace. In all five boroughs on Tuesday, we couldn’t get the kids off the pitch. There were no coaches, only facilitators, no referees and you can see that there were no problems. Kids all chasing the ball, right or wrong, just playing and expressing themselves. Even though the cameras were there, there was no shyness, no inhibitions, just expression – non-stop play.
That was one part of it, the most important part – secondly, just talking to community leaders and they expressed their appreciation for how important this is and the need for a safe space for kids to play. In the communities, they went above and beyond to make everyone feel welcome – younger kids, older kids, families, teachers, NYPD officers, NYPD explorers, Principals – you saw first-hand how football brings people together.
It’s not just about the dozen kids playing on the pitch, but the broader community impact – everyone can plug into this and enjoy it. The bridge-building it can forge between law enforcement and the kids is great and can help to create safe communities. Kids are spending much more time on screens, video games and cellphones but when they’re playing soccer, no one is reaching for their pockets for their phones. They’re in the zone and exhilarated. When you see a kid playing a video game or on their phones they’re not present, they’re not smiling but it’s the opposite when they’re playing soccer. To be able to provide that moment of truly being present and exhilarated with these pitches, it’s a beautiful thing.
I played soccer and I had an education which taught me three things when I came to the U.S from England – the head, the heart and the hands. When I graduated, I wanted to integrate those three things – to study, work hard and then do something for others. When I was involved with coaching, I saw that football wasn’t as inclusive in this country as it could be and I wanted to change that. When I was doing inner-city work back in 2007 I was in a playground with these kids and I realized that soccer could be a solution for kids’ development when it comes to attitude and behavior. That’s when I decided I wanted to try to help take down some of those barriers, in terms of providing places to play and in making it accessible.
I think the NYCSI initiative helps to achieve both.