Joel Katz, senior manager, Youth Sports Partnership with the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation, leads a group of Play Where You Stay students in soccer drills at the Gaston Community Center. (Submitted)

By Aisling Maki, High Ground News

As the world’s most popular sport, soccer transcends national and cultural boundaries and socioeconomic status. But in the United States, soccer participation comes with fees, transportation requirements and other barriers that have kept the game primarily the domain of suburban middle- and upper-class white families.

But a new model is leveling the playing field in Memphis. Play Where You Stay identifies unused spaces in neighborhoods that can be improved with some sweat equity and turned into soccer fields. The program recruits neighborhood children interested in playing the sport and pays its college-age coaches a living wage.

Neighborhood girls learning soccer skills during a Play Where You Stay session at Binghampton Park. The nonprofit developmental soccer initiative has partnered with the Memphis Refugee Empowerment Program to bring accessible soccer programming to neighborhood children, many who are refugees and immigrants. (Submitted)

The nonprofit co-ed league for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade, which has three sites and a total of about 170 youth participants, was launched in October of last year by Memphian Ellen Roberds and her husband, Jarad Bingham.

“We were pretty disillusioned with competitive soccer,” said Roberds. “Our daughter and oldest son play, and there were a lot of things that didn’t work for us. It can be complicated for a family if you want to play at a high level here, requiring a lot of flexibility in terms of transportation, dollars and time, and we didn’t like the inequity of how, in America, soccer is kind of a middle and upper-class sport.”

Roberds and Bingham, who are experienced community organizers, founded Play Where You Stay as a developmental soccer program. There is a small fee of $10 a week, which helps pay coaches, but no one is turned away for inability to pay. Sessions take place Monday through Friday from 4 to 5 p.m. Enrollment is rolling, so kids can sign up to join in whenever their schedule allows.

“And so if we can hit a certain volume and a certain percentage of those folks pay, and then we can cover our coaches costs,” Roberds said. “We’re grateful and excited when you can come and we’ll work with you where you are.”

Another factor that sets Play Where You Stay apart from other soccer clubs is that it treats competitive play as optional.

“Not everybody wants the competition piece,” Roberds said. “I think a lot of times when kids are younger or just starting out in soccer, especially if they’ve never been exposed to it in their own communities or families, it’s good for them to have the option of whether or not they want to compete. And then it’s also been interesting because parents have come to me and said their child is on the autism spectrum and hasn’t been able to do competitive sports because it’s too stressful. And that’s a group that we hadn’t really thought of but the model works for them, too. We’re pretty concentrated on socio-economics, so it’s lovely to see all these like other possibilities unfolding.”

Play Where You Stay secured some seed funding and one sponsor with Greenfield Arena, an indoor soccer facility in Midtown that’s one of the three initial program sites. The others are Binghampton Park and at College Park in South Memphis.

For Daniel, a fourth grader at Bruce Elementary School, the Greenfield site gave him his first sports experience.

“Play Where You Stay has been an awesome program for my son,” said his mom, Karen Rush. “Until this past winter, he had never participated in any sports but had been expressing an interest in soccer for quite a while. The practical skills he has learned, as well as relationships built with the coaches and other participants, have been invaluable. I love the fact that it’s conveniently located and affordable. I would highly recommend this to anyone whose children are interested in soccer, whether they are beginners are more advanced players. “

Roberds sought out coaches who loved the game, were willing to make the commitment, and could also benefit from the program by learning skills that they could transfer to other areas of their lives. Roberds approached the men’s and women’s soccer teams at Christian Brothers University in Midtown.

“And they just started sending us coaches,” she said. “So, there’s a coach who schedules all the other coaches, and now those existing coaches are recruiting others. They’re all very interested in the program, and it pays well, which is important to them. We want a pipeline of coaches.”

Many but not all coaches are college students, who earn $35 for a head coach position and $20 as an assistant coach for each one-hour session.

“So it’s worth their while financially as young people, even if they are only doing one or two fields a week because of their schedule,” Roberds said.

The crop of coaches are a global tapestry made up of young adults from England, Northern Ireland, Tanzania, Lebanon, Columbia, Germany, Argentina and Morocco, in addition to the United States.

“I’ve only been working in here a couple of weeks now but I’m really enjoying it so far,” said Zack Wilson, who is from Northern Ireland and is a freshman soccer player at CBU. “Seeing the variety, the different backgrounds of everyone at the three different sites, has been great. Plus, we’re being paid, which is great.”

At the South Memphis site where Wilson serves as assistant coach, Stay Where You Play recruited many of their players through community partner Knowledge Quest, a neighborhood nonprofit.

“In the fall, we did sort of an exposure program at Knowledge Quest,” Roberds said. “Many of the kids opted in. It’s more of a club kind of experience — usually 15 to 20 of the same kids who come in each week.”

The children at the South Memphis site are primarily from African-American families in the neighborhood. Their commonality is the newness of the sport, which they’re learning together.

This demographic differs from the Binghampton site, where Play Where You Stay has recruited children through the Refugee Empowerment Program.

“Those children come from a lot of different countries, and it’s a different dynamic because they’re coming from cultures where soccer is a huge part of life and they maybe have some pre- existing skills and knowledge,” Roberds said.

Lucas Guimaraes Drumond, a freshman at CBU who moved from his native Brazil to Memphis as a teenager, serves as head coach at the Binghampton site.

Play Where You Stay coach Ninaruta Fidel, a student at Central High School, looks on as youth participants hone their soccer skills at Greenfield Arena in Midtown, one of three neighborhood sites offering the developmental soccer programming. (Submitted)

“Being from Brazil, my whole life I played soccer for free,” he said. “When I came here and realized I had to pay to play, that was really different for me. When I heard about Play Where You Stay bringing Soccer to neighborhoods, getting kids involved without them having to pay, and receiving good coaching to help them develop their skills here in the United States, I thought it was amazing. And these kids, because of their cultures, know the sport, love the sport, and they’re real passionate about it.”

Drumond said the program’s benefits go well beyond athletics, citing a boy he coached from Mexico named Jesus, who spoke limited English.

“He loved soccer but didn’t really know how to play,” Drumond said. “His English has improved since he started playing. His confidence has improved from taking soccer instruction in English. Sometimes he doesn’t respond to me in English, but soccer-wise he understands everything I talk about now.”

Play Where You Stay is looking to add new sites to its program

“Some things they should look for is space,” Roberds said. “Is there a lot or a park that meets a certain dimension that’s flat and maybe needs a little sweat equity? Are there a number of kids and ways to access them, like a nearby elementary school or church program? Bring us to your neighborhood to chat.”

Roberds said they plan to add field trips to local colleges and universities so children can watch higher-level soccer games and cheer on their own coaches. She said the organization would also love to team up with 901 FC, Memphis’ new professional soccer team whose home field is AutoZone Park.

Play Where You Stay’s spring season kicks off March 18. Registration is open now on their website.

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