Starfinder soccer program benefits underprivileged youth

Posted: February 13, 2012

Sallen Woewiyu Jr., an effervescent senior at Penn Wood High School in Delaware County, explained why he routinely gets on the No. 113 bus after school . . . makes a short hop from Lansdowne to 69th Street Station in Upper Darby . . . transfers to the No. 65 bus going to 30th Street Station, then gets picked up by a van that takes him to an indoor soccer facility in Manayunk.

And why he reverses the commute afterward, getting only a bus token for his troubles, traveling with several other Penn Wood students.

Inside the converted old Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education Center on Main Street in Manayunk, they find young men comfortable with a soccer ball at their feet, kindred spirits from varied backgrounds.

"I would never in a million years think I'd have friends from Albania, from Poland," said Woewiyu, who left his native (and war-torn) Liberia when he was 8 years old, first moving to Ghana, eventually to New Jersey. He now lives in Yeadon with his father.

The Starfinder Foundation, housed in the converted facility, has dedicated itself to creating a soccer culture different than typically found in this country. There are 115 registered high school players in the program, and foundation officials estimate 80 regularly attend, a good portion immigrants and first-generation teenagers from Mexico, Columbia, and Brazil, some from Haiti, many from West African countries, even one from Afghanistan.

"We're providing an opportunity that is more organic," said Starfinder Foundation executive director Steve Baumann, former head soccer coach at the University of Pennsylvania. "If we didn't have coaches here, they'd all still show up. It's not like suburban soccer where if the coach isn't there to call practice, nobody plays soccer. These guys, it's in their blood and it's in their culture and it's in their being. They want to be here.

"It's sort of the most pure form of what we can get in soccer right now, given how organized it is. There's some purity to it, some passion to it."

That's the mission, to create that kind of scene. The foundation went out and recruited participants, going into the schools all over the city and the close suburbs. Baumann said many of the young men and women are "underserved" by their schools and often overlooked in the college-recruiting process.

Woewiyu is being recruited because his club team, based in Southwest Philadelphia, was on the travel-team circuit, but most aren't part of that system. There also is a larger program for pre-high school students.

What I didn't see on a recent visit to the facility were games. For two-and-a-half hours, dozens of teenagers, about half of the group, kicked a soccer ball around. The other half was in another part of the building, most of them on computers.

"They're all participating in a fantasy soccer league we've put together so they can learn to use Excel," Baumann said. There wasn't even a scrimmage. Those are on Friday nights. On Wednesdays, it's all working on skills.

The eight-year-old foundation held its first college showcase last month, inviting coaches from most of the area schools. At least a dozen colleges were represented.

"They have aspirations," Baumann said of the typical soccer player at Starfinder. "What they don't have is people to help them create pathways from where they are to where they want to be."

A college athletic scholarship wasn't the point of the showcase.

"Their pathway is really through academics, through graduating, then they'll have financial aid," Baumann said. "They have the need, so they don't need the athletic scholarship, and they can still play soccer."

The abilities are wide-ranging.

"There was talent out there," said Rosemont College coach Will Nord. "There were players who could quite possibly play D-I, and definitely D-III," he said.

A number of Starfinder players planned recruiting visits after the showcase. But the larger purpose, Baumann said, was for all the players in the program to see that college options can exist for them.

"I think what the college coaches saw was, 'Wow, those kids are different - they play differently, in a very positive way,' " Baumann said. "In a longer time frame, they're going to be better players. They're more technical, and they're more sort of passionate. You can just see it when they play."

If parents can afford to write a check to pay for their child to join Starfinder, then the program isn't for them. Officials will take the checks, and may even be willing to have parents drive a minivan around and pick up the kids who need the rides. But the program is for underserved kids.

"I've made friends here, we call each other, play FIFA," Woewiyu said, referring to the popular video game. "We meet up somewhere. Some of my closest friends are from here."


Contact Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com or @Jensenoffcampus on Twitter. Read his "Off Campus" columns at www.philly.com/offcampus

 

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