“To improve the lives of children through soccer.”
That’s how Kate Solomon, executive director of the newly minted FC Cincinnati Foundation, sums up its mission.
The foundation launched in December, but it has been in the works since FC Cincinnati started, said Solomon, who is also the club’s vice president of community relations.
“We have five programs,” she said. “All of these exist around connecting kids to soccer or having youth soccer as a motivator.”
“It’s not about soccer so much as what soccer can do for the community,” said Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco, a foundation board member and Hamilton County coroner. “The more of these programs we have that keep kids engaged with fun activities and bring them together in a common fashion with some common interest … the more harmony you’re going to have in your community.”
The Club Ambassador program predates the foundation but now falls under its umbrella. Retired FC Cincinnati player Omar Cummings and other staff members visit school gym classes, teaching kids to play soccer. But it’s not just about learning the sport, Cummings said.
“First and foremost, it gets them having fun,” he said. “Going into some of the neighborhoods that we go into, you see so many kids with adult mentalities, adult actions, adult words. It’s like childhood development is taken away.”
Solomon estimates the program serves 20 schools per year and could grow. Three participating schools are in the West End, FC Cincinnati’s soon-to-be home and a focus of the foundation.
“We want to be good neighbors,” she said. “We really want to make an impact throughout the region, but we want to start in the West End.”
Soccer for Success
In March, the foundation partnered with the YMCA and Cincinnati Recreation Commission to launch Soccer for Success. A national initiative offered through the U.S. Soccer Foundation, it gathers kids at a dozen locations to play soccer three days a week. The foundation provides equipment and training for staff at partner locations, as well as uniforms, soccer balls and shin guards for participants.
More than 100 kids took part in the first season. Many live in communities that otherwise might not have access to soccer, she said.
“We would love to introduce more kids to the game,” she said. “Fans are players.”
And who knows: Exposure could turn a local kid into the next soccer star, Cummings figures.
“We’re missing a lot of the talent that could potentially come out of some of these communities,” he said. “The opportunity probably got missed because a kid may not get introduced to a sport like soccer.”
West End Pride
Another program, West End Pride, involves kids in that neighborhood who play in SAY (Soccer Association for Youth), a recreational league. The foundation provides funding and helps recruit volunteers and FC Cincinnati staff coaches. This spring, 130 kids filled 10 teams.
Mini Pitches, another initiative, builds mini soccer fields. Solomon said the foundation will construct at least 10 throughout the region within five years. The first, a turf field at the Lincoln Recreation Center in the West End, is complete.
Locations that can offer programming are desirable, but the pitches are also places to drop in and play. The foundation pays for goals and painting the lines, while partner locations help with maintenance.
The hope is that the foundation’s soccer-related programs will have an impact beyond the game.
“You also have to consider all of the other values that kids learn through sports,” Solomon said. “Hopefully, it’s instilling confidence, teamwork, learning to work with people who are different from you. All of those skills will translate well to whatever they plan to do in their future.”
“You have to make that impact now with these kids, and make it positive, so that as they move into adulthood, regardless of the hardships they’ve faced, they have a foundation of positivity they can tap into when times get rough,” Sammarco said. Without that background, kids might turn to negative avenues, such as drugs or gangs, she said.
Learning Is Cool
The foundation acquired its Learning Is Cool program from the Marvin Lewis Community Fund. An education honor roll program that began in 2003, it reaches approximately 30,000 youngsters annually, Solomon said. It encourages kids to do well in school through quarterly rewards and invitations to a year-end recognition event with FC Cincinnati players and coaches. Players also visit schools throughout the year.
“It’s providing kids with someone to look up to, providing that encouragement to continue working hard in school and rewarding that behavior, and showing that positive work can lead to something else,” Solomon said.
Funding the mission
All five programs are free. A nonprofit, the foundation is funded through partnerships with businesses and private foundations as well as event revenue, Solomon said. Coming up July 13 is the FCC3, a three-mile race at The Banks offered in partnership with the Flying Pig Marathon. (More info: fccrace.com)
Membership Club, the foundation’s new individual donor program, offers donors team-related benefits. Individuals who donate at the $250 level or higher earn a collectible pin. Higher-level donors get access to exclusive events.
In addition to Solomon, foundation leadership comes from the 16-member board that includes Sammarco.
“We really tried to reach out to a diverse group of people … that could bring in unique ideas to help build this program,” Solomon said.
It’s clear the foundation has a lot happening right out of the gate.
“We’ve taken on a lot and hope to make a big impact this first year to set that base, and then continue to make a bigger impact,” Solomon said.
“This is exactly what I think a major league sport should do for the city,” Sammarco said of the foundation. “(It’s) not just behind the scenes. It’s really being out there in front and being engaged with the kids.
“I have every confidence that this foundation is going to be an extremely effective community organization.” ν