Soccer association reaches out to kids who need assistance


Howard At Play


BACK IN 1998 or so, one of the buzz phrases rampant in American soccer was that somewhere out there, probably in disadvantaged neighborhoods of the big cities, the next Pele was lurking and was only 9 or 10 or 11.

The pros began culling, especially, sections of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities with large Latino populations that essentially were outside the largely Caucasian, middle- and upper-middle class leagues that still constitute American youth soccer. In some cities, including Baltimore and Washington, attempts at exposing more African-American kids to the game began.

About the same time, as Gordon Kimble tells it, he and then-Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County President Jim Carlan (he's chief operating officer now) were talking about the future of the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County.

"The club decided that it should better reflect the community we serve," said Kimble, who lives in Columbia's Clemens Crossing neighborhood and is partner with a brother in a Philadelphia-area limousine and public transportation business.

"We wanted to reach out to find more African-Americans, Hispanics and others who could give us a more inclusive program. We decided that we shouldn't just talk about it but do it. There was no reason we shouldn't, and with 6,000 players and all the adults that go with a club that large, no reason we couldn't."

The next Pele hasn't been found - yet.

But Howard County efforts that evolved from those conversations continue the search locally. It's being done through one of the few pro-active recruiting programs for disadvantaged kids in the youth game nationally and one of apparently two such efforts in this county. The other is First Tee, the Tiger Woods-inspired golf program that began here last summer with a lot of publicity.

But the work of Kimble and SAC/HC has scarcely been noted beyond board meetings and a small group of coaches for the club and a cluster of public educators.

Since 1998, with Kimble the leader, SAC/HC has added about 200 players - boys and girls - between 4 and 11 it probably would have missed without extra effort.

SAC/HC calls them scholarship players, because the club pays their expenses (about $150 a year apiece) and tries to assure both their comfort and improvement in soccer skills. The club even has a shoe exchange to recycle outgrown cleats.

Kimble, a rec-level girls coach (he has two daughters) and age-group coordinator for most of his six years in the club and now a director, too, said it has been a broad education. He found no guidebook or club from which to model a program.

"I've sure gotten a much better appreciation for the role schools play in the lives of these kids," said Kimble, noting advice he received from many levels, ranging from sports to government to local schools. One who helped, he said, was County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, who worked hard to set up the First Tee program.

The program Kimble devised works through about a dozen county elementary schools with sizable populations of needy kids by any definition, ranging from low income to newly arrived immigrant status. Some are still learning English.

Principals, counselors or phys-ed teachers - "our champions," Kimble calls them - identify kids who might benefit from soccer, of course. That keeps SAC/HC out of the tricky, confidential business of determining eligibility.

"Otherwise, we'd be deluged with applicants," said Kimble, who is still hoping to find a local car dealership willing to help out with a van that could be put to good use in the program.

"A lot of the households have one car, and the person working needs that," he explained.

SAC/HC invites parents of those identified to a meeting at which the program is explained. Not all respond, but about 50 youngsters a year have signed up, Kimble said. Many originals have continued, starting young in SAC/HC's clinics and progressing, in the case of some older children, to travel ball.

Yvonne Gordon, a counselor at Columbia's Talbott Springs Elementary School, has been involved from the start. "It's neat," she said of Kimble's program. "And it's done on a socio-economic basis, not race."

She and Kimble talk about the impact one child playing can make on a household in which, often, no way is seen to participate in community activities, particularly in a county as affluent as Howard.

As to rewards, Kimble had, indeed, a neat answer: "I've even had a grandmother come up to me at a game with tears in her eyes, thanking us for what we had done for her grandson."

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