A Worthy Goal

Two afternoons a week you can find close to 80 aspiring soccer players in classrooms well after school ends. They are there not because they have to be, but because they want to be. For the past decade Project Goal has offered more than 500 students the opportunity to improve academically, while receiving top-notch coaching from former soccer professionals and certified coaches. All at no cost to the kids. Jim Hummel finds it's a mix that is yielding impressive results.

SCRIPT:

On a Friday afternoon at 4 o'clock - when most kids would want to be anywhere but school, dozens of boys and girls are in classrooms at Calcutt Middle School in Central Falls.

Not because they have to be... because they want to be.

And that's because after 90 minutes of homework or tutoring they hit the gym with top-notch soccer coaches and former professional players to work on their skills - and to play a game they love.

Whealton: ``These kids think they're in a soccer program. They're not. They're in a personal responsibility program I like to call it.''

Peter Whealton helped found Project Goal a decade ago when it was just 20 kids at a Providence middle school. Along with co-founders Darius Shirzadi and Javier Centeno - who both played for the Rhode Island Stingrays soccer team - they have built a program that now serves 80 inner-city student-athletes a week.

The middle- and high-school students come primarily from Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls.

They gather Tuesdays and Fridays at 3:30 sharp. If they don't get  to their classroom on time - it delays their getting down to the gym or field by the number of minutes they are late.

Whealton: ``With Project Goal you can't belong to a gang, we make the kids sign a contract, they have to bring their work. We're your gang. And to stay in the program you've got to keep your nose clean, you've got to do your work. And as you've probably already found out, if you mess up in any way, you didn't bring your work, we had a bad report from your day school during the day or you gave one of our teachers a hard time then you're in what we call `redirect.'

Basically y your're in with another teacher for another hour and a half. We drop kids from the program.''

Hummel: ``It gets their attention pretty quickly doesn't it?''

Whealton: ``It works because we've got teeth in the program and the kids know it.''

Hummel: ``And there are others lined up out the door waiting.''

Whealton: ``A hundred and fifty kids try to get in and there's only a few spots.''

Darius Shirzadi says the message to the kids is clear:

Shirzadi: ``Hey you've got to be on time. That exists in the program, when you get out in the real world that's very important. You have to be responsible. If you're not going to be here you have to let us know that you're not going to be here. It can't come from a parent, it can't come from a sibling it can't come from a friend.''

Javier Centeno knows first-hand how crucial keeping up the academics can be. His family moved to Central Falls from Columbia when he was  11.

Centeno: ``Everything I knew was soccer, soccer, soccer. I was not putting too much effort into my school and it became very detrimental.Why? Because, you know I moved on to the high school, Central Falls High School, I graduated from there in 1985 and I made All-State as a soccer player. Providence College and URI they were willing to give me a scholarship - but when they saw my grades - they were not good, so I couldn't go to a Division 1 school.''

So he went to CCRI - but sometimes thinks about: what could have been.

Centeno: ``If back then when I was growing up if I was involved in a program like Project Goal I think my life would have been different, especially acadmic.''

And because he is from Central Falls, Centeno's relationship with many of the kids here has gone beyond Project Goal.

Centeno: ``I could be driving down the street of Central Falls at 11 o'clock at night I'd see kids 12 years old and I stop and ask what's going on, you should be home.  So this is the relationship that we have. So I can pick up on the kids who are going to stay and do good and the kids who are going to go different ways.''

Hummel: ``Is it tough to see some of those kids wash out and not make the program because you know what's going to happen to them?''

Centeno: ``It's always tough, because we want these kids to have an opportunity. We want these kids to have  a better future, a better life and sometimes they justdone get it. As much as we have to let them go, it hurts us, because they're just missing out on a great program that was going to give them opportunities, that was going to open doors to have a better future.''

Massamba Sow is originally from Senegal. He saw an ad in the newspaper a few years back for a coaching position with Project Goal and jumped on it. Sow says there has been an increased emphasis on how to play the game.

Sow: ``Years past we were just coming to the gym and make teams and just play. I realized after we played a tournament last month, the skills just weren't there - this year I started to have some exercise, some skills the first 45 minutes of the hour and a half - then the last 45 minutes we play games.''

Hummel: ``It gets pretty competitive, kids slam into doors,  some go down, they get the ball n the gut and there are teaching moments there, are there not?'

Centeno: ``Yes.''

Hummel: ``And what do you teach them on the field?''

Centeno: ``One the things we try to teach them is how to play as a team. A lot of these kids are not well trained and they think it's one against 10.''

Over the past decade 30 Project Goal students have gone on to private schools, almost all with scholarships. A total of 500 boys and girls have gone through the program over the past decade.

The budget is about $100,000 a year, all from donations and grants. Project Goal hires seven teachers and three coaches, many bilingual. The kids pay nothing.

Shirzadi: ``I was thinking about how awful it would be for my own kids not to be able to participate in something because we just didn't have the money or we couldn't get there; if it was something they really wanted to pursue , especially if it could create opportunities for them down the line, whether it be through sports or academics.''

Anna Cano Morales, the head of the Central Falls Board of Trustees grew up in the city and has a 6th-grade son in the program. It's his second year with Project Goal.

Morales: ``I have seen a kid who is an introvert by nature, his personality is not like his mother's, I'm very much an extrovert. He's much more guarded, much more reserved, shy. His confidence has blossomed.''

Hummel: ``And what about  the soccer element?''

Morales: ``Much more of an organized player - the self confidence isn't just in the classroom - the self-confidence goes across the way to soccer as well.''

Hummel: ``So you think that's the underpinning, if academically, then it carries out.''

Morales: ``Absolutely. We've actually used the analogy of soccer and a soccer game when he's prepared for a test.''

Frances Camara is also in her second year at Project Goal and is an 8th-grader at The Wheeler School.

Hummel: ``What are you learning out there from the soccer standpoint, when you're out there in the gym?''

Camara: ``I'm learning teamwork, I'm also learning my soccer skills as a player. Project goal has helped me when I'm on the soccer field to play for Wheeler. They've helped me how to pass the ball better, they've give me skills for better communication and it's really helped me on the soccer field.''

Hummel: `` What has surprised you about this program?''

Shirzadi: ``The impact that we've been able to make, particularly in this community where you see some of the data and percentages of kids who graduate from high school and don't - that pretty much everybody that comes through the program and completes it through high school - they graduate.''

Hummel: ``Do you think they get how important - even at this young age, do they get what they're getting?''

Centeno: ``I want to say yeah, not at the beginning, but yes, the program as time  goes on, they get it after awhile.''

Whealton: ``You can't spend any time with these kids and not want to spend more time with them. You can't walk into a Project Goal classroom and see on a Friday afternoon, after school, the kids have been in school all day long. They've got their heads down they're doing their work, you've got a mentor from college sitting next to them in many cases, working on their school work - so they can go play soccer later.''

In Central Falls, Jim Hummel, for The Rhode Island Spotlight.

 

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