Just over two years ago, the Philadelphia Union opened play in Major League Soccer as the league's 16th team. As season three is about to get underway, a new launch has come to fruition: the Philadelphia Union Foundation. The Union held a launch event on Tuesday at PPL Park with approximately 100 guests in attendance.
The Foundation, a registered 501c3, will target inner city youth, particularly in the city of Chester, where PPL Park is located. According to its mission statement, the Foundation "provides opportunities for children through the power of relationships to offer transformational change in the areas of education, community, health and recreation."
The Foundation lists four building blocks: Life Skills Programming, Safe Fields, Good Health Through Proper Nutrition, and Play Soccer and Have Fun. In a nutshell, the Foundation aims to provide opportunities and reinforce values that will foster positive development.
Foundation founder Nick Sakiewicz, who also serves as CEO & Operating Partner of the Union, referred to the initiative as a "matter of the heart." He spoke of the Foundation as an initiative that has been in the works for years, even before the first brick was laid alongside the Commodore Barry Bridge.
"I said to [Union chairman] Jay [Sugarman], wouldn't it be cool to change a city?" Sakiewicz said at the launch event, recalling the first time the two visited Chester in search of a stadium site. "When in life do you get to change a city and a generation of kids? If you know the kids in this town, they need change and they need help."
The Foundation will work in conjunction with a number of organizations including, among others, the US Soccer Foundation, MLS W.O.R.K.S., Crozer-Keystone Health System, Widener University, and Chester City United, the city's only club soccer team, which the Union helped launch along with several youth organizations in the Chester area. Planned projects include a playground build in Chester, health and wellness initiatives, soccer development programs, and a series of fundraising events, including the second annual River Cup charity match between Union staff and the Sons of Ben.
"When the Philadelphia Union came to Chester, we put a soccer team on the field. They attract fans from all over the state, the country, and quite frankly in a short time, the world," said Foundation executive director Rick Jacobs. "What we're looking to do now is take that inclusiveness and wrap ourselves around the city of Chester. This is the work that we're charged with and challenged with."
As part of the launch event program, a Powerpoint presentation spoke to the dire need for change in Chester. According to a study conducted in 2011, over 50 percent of children in Chester under the age of 18 live below the poverty line, more than three times the Pennsylvania average. The high school dropout rate in the Chester Upland School District is 14.8 percent, over eight times the state average.
While crime is often what makes headlines, the root of the problem begins at a younger age. With after-school and recreational activities scarce, children are forced to live unhealthy lifestyles and seek other ways, often destructive, to occupy their time.
According to the Widener University Chester Promise Neighborhoods Project, 33.5 percent of Chester youth are not involved in any supervised after-school activities (down from 64.3 percent in 2004). As a direct result, 55.7 percent of Chester youth are considered obese or overweight.
Amongst Chester youth in grades 6-8, 91 percent have seen an arrest, 90 percent have heard gun shots, 81 percent have witnessed gang activity, 80 percent have seen someone assaulted, 71 percent have seen drug deals in progress, 43 percent have witnessed a gun in an altercation, 13 percent have seen someone stabbed, and 12 percent have had their house burglarized.
"If you take a tour of Chester you can’t help but notice the lack of recreation facilities for young people," the Chester Promise Neighborhoods Project summarized. "Few local businesses offer employment opportunities for youth as well. This is the result of the economic downturn that has continued in this area, since 1950. These contributing factors can lead to risky behaviors amongst Chester youth, including but not limited to: violence, drug-use, increased teen pregnancy and childhood obesity.”
The problems in Chester are significant, but Foundation chairman Mike Curry – a principal at The Vanguard Group who has served as chairman of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) Board of Governors – believes solutions are ahead.
"When you look at Chester, I want you to look at me," Curry said during the launch event. "I want you to look at a person who could've easily been on that headline (of a child shot and killed). The odds of someone like me not making it to almost 60 years old are very real. The difference for me was some good parents who cared, but most importantly I found sports, I found soccer. I found the passion, commitment and dedication.
"I want to be a part of this because I wouldn't be standing here if it weren't for programs like the ones we hope to build with the Philadelphia Union Foundation to give people a chance to be the best that they can be. And that's all people want, the chance to be the best that they can be."
And the potential is indeed there.
"We have a community that is awesome," said Sakiewicz. "The kids here, if we can just give them some more opportunity, are going to blossom into an incredible work force, people, husbands, wives, workers, employees, teachers, doctors. That's something I want to see before I leave this earth."
Three Union players, Danny Califf, Brian Carroll and Chase Harrison, were in attendance at the launch event, in addition to coaches John Hackworth and Rob Vartughian, as well as sporting director Diego Gutierrez.
Califf spoke from the heart about why he chose to get involved with the Foundation.
"Outside those lines behind you, I'd rather pick someone up than knock someone down, hard as that may be to believe," he said, drawing a chorus of laughter from the audience. "I'm really excited to be a part of this. Soccer has given me so much in my life. It's allowed me to travel, it's allowed me to learn about different cultures, different people. It's given me and my family so much.
"Now that I'm in a place like Philadelphia and get to play for the Union, it's a platform. It's a platform that I feel has enabled me and enabled us to reach out and help people, and help kids in this community, in Philadelphia and in Chester.
"I'm just so stoked to be here and use this platform to do something that's bigger than me and bigger than us. At the end of the day it's not about how much money you have in the bank, it's about the lives you affect. Hopefully we can lift some kids up and lift some people up that aren't as fortunate as we are."
While the Union attempt to make a deeper run into the MLS Cup Playoffs in 2012, the club's new foundation will be working on a parallel mission.
"I know the power that (soccer) ball has to light kids up," said Sakiewicz. "We're not talking about these kids becoming professional players, we're talking about these kids changing a community on their own and changing their lives. And that's what this is all about tonight; this is important stuff. This is a matter of the heart for me. This is not about anything other than changing the city and changing the kids that are growing up in it. It's the right thing to do."