Fifth-graders score leadership in new soccer club

Coach Murray helps Danyelle Miller on making a handball pass.



ST. PETERSBURG – Fifth-grader Danyelle Miller is at her happiest when she kicks the soccer ball down the field.

“It keeps me active and excited,” Danyelle, 10, said.

She hopes to continue her adrenaline streak in soccer playing on the new STARS soccer club at Fairmount Park Elementary.

The club started last month at five other Pinellas elementary schools: Fairmount Park, Campbell Park, Pinellas Park, Lealman, Lakewood and Melrose. It is part of the “Prep for Middle School Success” grant that started earlier this year as a collaboration between Pinellas County Schools, Juvenile Welfare Board (JWB) and USF St. Petersburg (USFSP).

USFSP’s College of Education was awarded the grant in April by JWB. Its purpose is preparing fifth-graders entering middle school with essential leadership skills. It also supports USFSP expansion of their programs in nearby elementary schools.

“It benefits everyone teaching and learning,” said Harris Ambush, community liaison for USFSP’s College of Education.

The grant is composed of five components: a USFSP tutoring program, which its students mentor fifth-graders, host SMART leadership summer camps, have a leadership club once a week, college field trips and a soccer club.

“This is a good role model for fifth-graders to get the needed skills to make the best decisions,” said Ambush. “It is important for children to have the motivation to strive better not just in school, but for themselves.”

USFSP has had a partnership with Fairmount Park for four years. They have held summer camps for upcoming fifth graders, along with campus field trips and tutoring sessions.

“This grant is a follow-up for students who joined our camps,” said Bill Heller, the College of Education dean at USFSP.

STARS is an acronym for the club’s goals (Soccer, Teamwork, Attitude, Respect and Self-Awareness). USFSP, along with the club coaches, hope to instill leadership values to the teams.

According to Harris, the club was a long-working process. This included research and discussion for the best opportunities to give elementary students. They choose soccer as the best activity that displays leadership skills and co-ed teamwork.

“We saw that soccer was the number one sport to help with team-building,” Ambush said.

“Soccer is the best sport for children to understand how to work and have fun as a team,” said Heller.

Harris helps oversees the grant with his brother David managing the club. David helps support the soccer teams by refereeing games and teaching yoga, which he started a year ago for schools.

“Yoga goes with the last letter of STARS for self-awareness,” said David.

The Ambush brothers are no strangers in helping their hometown. They also founded Hands 4 Hope, which assists St. Pete elementary schools with programs such as yoga, art and health and wellness classes.

According to Ambush, the club is a first for Pinellas elementary schools to hold sports games. But the goal is not winning games, but good student conduct. The teams are encouraged to achieve good grades and behavior in school. A grade drop or misbehavior can result in team suspension.

“It is more about the students than competition,” Ambush said.

Most of the Fairmount team is new to the game.

Jason Murray, or “Coach J” by his Fairmount students, has never played soccer before. But having played sports since high school such as track and basketball, he quickly took the challenge of learning a new sport in two weeks of the club’s start.

“I knew the rules, but I didn’t put them to the test until now,” Murray, 29 said.

But like his team, Murray quickly took a liking to the game.

“It is a joy…to work with kids who grew up in the same area as I have,” Murray said.

Danyelle’s teammate, Antonio Morgan, prefers playing football to soccer, but he finds soccer helps him with footwork.

“I’m getting better in both,” Antonio, 11, said.

In the past month, Fairmount Park has played against Pinellas Park and Lealman, scoring victories in both games.

Ambush recalls a school principal exclaiming during a game that “those kids never have behaved so well.”

The teams practice two times a week and play against each other on Fridays. They wear their jerseys all day to show their team spirit.

The club has gain high participation from the players’ parents. For Fairmount’s first game, they showed their supports with signs made by the school.

Tracey Stokes, Danyelle’s aunt and guardian, was ecstatic about the chance that some children were getting to play her niece’s favorite sport.

“They now have more opportunities to play,” stated Stokes said, who said that Danyelle hopes to continue playing the game after Fairmount.

“She won’t go to middle school without a soccer club,” she revealed.

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