ODPHP recognizes National Youth Sports Strategy (NYSS) Champions for their commitment to supporting safe, fun, inclusive, developmentally appropriate, and accessible youth sports opportunities. This blog post is part of a series highlighting NYSS Champions that have found new and creative ways to engage their communities in physical activity and sports during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This post highlights how South Bronx United kept young soccer players connected and active during the pandemic.
On March 14, 2020, South Bronx United (SBU) planned to hold an event called Football for Equality Day to promote equity and inclusion for girls in soccer. SBU, a nonprofit organization that serves youth from New York City’s South Bronx community, offers soccer programs alongside academic mentoring, college prep, leadership development, and immigration legal services.
But when New York City schools suspended in-person learning because of COVID-19 right before Football for Equality Day, SBU had to cancel the event. And with high COVID-19 rates in their community, they needed to entirely rethink how to engage kids.
Finding New Ways to Connect
SBU’s first step was to ramp up their non-sports programming by holding webinars for kids and their families. They were also able to distribute laptops to make sure participants had access. During the webinars, SBU gave families information (in English and Spanish) about how to access community services, like how to apply for unemployment benefits and how to figure out if they were eligible for stimulus checks.
“It was critical to us that we stay in touch with our participants in a number of different ways — and especially that we find ways to support them and their families,” says Andrew So, Executive Director of SBU.
In April, SBU started providing weekly recorded videos on YouTube to encourage kids to get physical activity at home. The videos featured coaches and program alumni demonstrating different soccer skills.
SBU also regularly held virtual “pod calls” for high school students. The calls gave teens an opportunity to connect with their coaches and teammates to do a fitness session or just talk — about soccer or how their lives were going during the pandemic.
Coming Back Together
In mid-August, SBU restarted some in-person programming that followed federal, state, and local guidance to help keep kids safe on and off the field. Although SBU had fewer participants than in the past and things looked a little different, So says many kids and their families were excited to get outside and play sports again after so much time away.
“Soccer is so crucial for many of our participants,” he says. “It’s important for their physical health, of course — but also their mental health, their social-emotional well-being, and the opportunity to interact with their peers.”
Building on Relationships
Starting in mid-January, kids could again come in person for weekly tutoring and academic mentoring — and in March 2021, kids were back out on the soccer field.
When it comes to SBU’s programming, So says the relationships SBU staff form with kids over multiple years is much more important than any single soccer season. He also says the relationships that kids built with their teammates and coaches during past seasons made it easier to keep them engaged during the pandemic.
“Because of the relationships they already had, the students were ready to hop on and get involved when we held the weekly virtual calls,” he says. “And maintaining those relationships remotely made them even more excited to come together again on the soccer field!”