ST. PETERSBURG – Saturday marked the last game for soccer at the Childs Park Recreation Center, located at 4301 13th Ave. S. Well at least until next season that is.
This year was the first year of shin guards and socks that travel to the knee for most children in the Childs Park neighborhood. Known for its long tradition of providing youth and teen programs, Childs Park is now hoping to be recognized for its spectacular soccer program.
“Right now is when you really gotta catch them,” said Childs Park YMCA Executive Director Deborah Figgs-Sanders who wants to see more children in the African- American community expand to the game of soccer, instead of the more popular sports such as football and basketball.
Figgs-Sanders hopes that by offering more athletic opportunities to children close to their homes, it will open more doors and clear more avenues for them in their attempts at attending college in the future. With the limited number of athletes who play youth and high school sports each year actually making it to those six figure salaries, Figgs-Sanders believes the younger generation should expand their horizons.
“If we could just get our children to understand we love football, we love basketball, but you have to look at the college opportunities too,” said Figgs-Sanders who wishes such sports as tennis, soccer and lacrosse would attract neighborhood kids. “Those [are] untapped, especially in our community.”
Figgs-Sanders said the idea originated from the Neighbor to Neighbor Christmas Program she heads up in which nearly 300 families are gifted a Christmas tree along with various other items such as youth sport certificates where need based families can send their children to participate in a sport for free. Twelve children from the program signed up for the Childs Park soccer program.
“This was one of our number one missions,” said Figgs-Sanders, “to introduce the children to something new.”
Thirty children in all participated in the impromptu soccer program that she admits was hurried in its conception, taking only a few weeks to get together. But with 26 following through and completing the entire season, she believes it was a hit.
Six teams played each other over the seven weeks of kicking through the grass, which started in early May. For a discounted club price of $45 for youths age 3-4, and $60 for 5-12 year olds, participants received the uniform, shin guards and even snacks. Figgs-Sanders stressed it was a good deal. The pint-sized soccer stars also earned a trophy at the end of the season and a team picture.
But the season wouldn’t have been such a hit without the dedication of coaches. Childs Park YMCA’s Youth Sports Director, Coach Don McDonald has over 30 years of soccer experience and along with Program Assistant Austin Williams, a former professional soccer player himself, the kids were in good hands.
“My objective is to show the kids it’s not where you come from, it’s where you’re going,” said Williams who along with McDonald not only taught the skills of the game but life lessons as well. Something that didn’t go unnoticed with Figgs-Sanders, the parents involved or the city’s elected officials.
“Childs Park, this is where all the kids are at,” said Councilman Wengay Newton who took a few moments to express the need to get the kids involved when they’re young, so they don’t end up in jail cells later. “It’s important that we coordinate efforts and do the best that we can to give these kids an opportunity. We want to support them and give to the kids now.”
Even professional soccer player number 44 Anthony Wallace of the St. Petersburg Rowdies showed up to give a few words of wisdom to the kids. Hailing from the south side for most of his younger years, Wallace remembers his youth as a time when getting outside and kicking around the soccer ball was some of the happiest memories of his life.
He urged the young players to continue in their efforts, working hard and developing a love for the game. Even if that game isn’t soccer or even a game at all, “It could be drawing, reading, writing,” Wallace said. “You can do what you want to do, you just gotta believe it.”
The last game of the season consisted of the various teams scrimmaging in a 10 minute game with each other before trophies were individually handed out to players, huge smiles plastered on their faces.
Next soccer season at Childs Park will coincide with others in the St. Petersburg area. Mark your calendars because registration will start in early January. And of course as always, the YMCA is always grateful for volunteers.