As wealthy as Canada is, not every Canadian child is able to play sports or join an activity program. Many kids can’t participate in hockey, soccer, baseball, dance, and tennis simply because their parents can’t afford it.
As a community soccer coach, I’ve never been comfortable with this, so it felt good when a friend and I had the chance to make a dent in the problem locally.
Starting in 2007, my friend Darryl Hooker and I put together an “inner-city” soccer program in Victoria to help local low-income kids get a chance to play. It followed a 2006 decision from the board of directors at the Bays United soccer club to address the sparse player registrations from a couple of low-income neighborhoods in our club catchment.
We secured funding from the Bell Community Sport Fund at True Sport, and then we created a soccer program for approximately 250 kids at two inner city elementary schools. After speaking with the principles at each school, Darryl designed a basic curriculum and I hired six soccer players from the University of Victoria to coach the program.
That spring, we ran a free program where we came into the schools two days each week over two months and coached soccer skills and game play for kids in Grades 1-5 during their physical education classes and lunch recesses. We arrived each day with soccer balls for every child and taught them fundamental skills in dribbling, passing, and shooting before breaking into small games.
The kids loved it. None of them had soccer shoes, and most often they didn’t even have appropriate clothing for physical activity, but the soccer sessions became the highlight of the week for many of them.
One little girl in Grade 2 played with great gusto in her white lace dress and black patent leather shoes with gold buckles. Another girl reportedly collapsed in tears at home when her mother told her she was too sick to go to school that day. She pleaded with her mother, “But mom! Today is soccer day!”
The teachers at both schools also loved the program. As one of our young coaches observed, the soccer programming seemed to be meeting a need that these schools weren’t able to address.
“The teachers are all in support of the active kids and active health concept,” said Sam Wingham, who has since become a school teacher. “I get the feeling the funding and the time is just not available.”
In the end, the program was so successful that B.C. Soccer asked if they could take it over. They had been working on a similar concept in Vancouver and they were interested in rolling out school programs across the province. We were happy to let them take the reins in support of a provincial-scale program.
The soccer outreach program was a huge success. It reached a lot of kids who would not have been able to play the sport otherwise. As well, a number of students subsequently found their way into our club soccer programs through bursaries from our club and KidSport.
There is plenty of need for improved access to sport and physical activity in Canada. Given the serious problems associated with youth inactivity, and the tremendous benefits associated with regular physical activity, improved access for all Canadians is a cause worth fighting for.