By George A. Willis
Children in some urban New Jersey communities are benefiting from new soccer fields designed to make play accessible to those without the resources or opportunities to play.
The practice scopes were built by the Players Development Academy Urban Initiative in collaboration with RWJ Barnabas Health.
The aim of the initiative, founded during the pandemic, is to provide football facilities and training for children in underserved urban communities in order to improve their physical and social well-being. Five turf fields have been built since January: two in New Brunswick and one each in Newark, Hamilton and Belleville. There are plans for additional areas in other New Jersey communities before duplicating the program nationwide.
“There are a lot of football fields around, but not in these underserved communities,” Gerry McKeown, director of the initiative, told Zenger.
“I thought if we could bring play to underserved communities, we could help those communities, increase the number of athletes exposed to play, give kids a chance to fall in love with play and maybe break the cycle of poverty.” by getting a scholarship to a college or maybe by becoming a professional.
Founded in 1998 and headquartered in Somerset, New Jersey, the Player Development Academy is a training program that offers high level education and competition for boys and girls. McKeown is the Executive Director of Boys’ Coaching.
He proposed the concept of the Urban Initiative during the pandemic. He looked at the success of the academy and all of the young athletes over the years who have received college scholarships to play football and some who have pursued professional careers. But there was something he didn’t like.
“Football has become an upper middle class sport with all the travel teams and the money to do it,” McKeown said. “We are the only country in the world where it has become a game of relative wealth. The better you are, the more it costs you. In all other countries it is a game for the poor. There is no cost. We are the antithesis of the rest of the world.
The concept of the Urban Initiative is similar to building a neighborhood basketball court open to the public for informal pickup matches at any time. Many of the nation’s top basketball and soccer players learned their game on courts and public grounds in urban communities. McKeown believes the same can happen with football.
“Providing soccer fields that children can walk to from their homes could give them a chance to learn the game,” McKeown said. “Children are so orchestrated these days. It is an organic environment with few instructions. It is peer learning.
There are also social and health benefits, which is why RWJBarnabas Health agreed to finance the majority of the fields. RWJBarnabas President and CEO Barry Ostrowsky was considering ways to invest in communities to promote physical activity and recreation, especially for young people.
“One of the social drawbacks that keeps people in poor health is the lack of facilities for children and others to exercise outdoors,” Ostrowsky said. “Generally speaking, vulnerable communities are not communities in which they build great outdoor recreational facilities. When they told me about the Urban PDA Initiative, it was just perfect. Their mission and our mission are precisely aligned.
See the results
When McKeown spends time in one of New Brunswick’s fields, he first sees young children playing after school. Later in the afternoon, young men and adults begin to appear, accompanied by their children and families. The fields, about 40 feet by 70 feet, are much smaller than regular football fields and the teams are generally 5 to 5. The ball is still in play because the field is fenced.
“In these environments, you’re on the ball all the time,” McKeown said. “The kids get a lot of touches. It’s about having the ability to be creative and sharpen your skills. He is a very different teacher from a normal football field.
McKeown is not only looking to see how the fields are used, but he is also looking for the rough diamond, which could be an exceptional talent.
“Any child who shows a promise, our club has agreed to offer a scholarship to the Players Development Academy for that child to participate for free,” McKeown said. “We will try to include as many of these children as possible in our program. “
Ostrowsky grew up in a time when children would meet on the field or the neighborhood field and play any seasonal sport.
“If there was a field available anywhere near us, we would use it,” Ostrowsky said. “We didn’t have to book it or join a league. We just used it. This is the kind of thing we see with… the Urban Initiative. You see people coming out because they want to use it.
An investment worthy of the name
Each football field costs around $ 70,000 to build, which Ostrowsky sees as a worthwhile investment.
“It warms my heart to know that we have actually invested resources in something that will not only be used immediately, but used happily and for the benefit of those who use it,” Ostrowsky said. “People are talking about building recreational complexes with gymnasiums and training grounds that cost millions of dollars. These fields are much cheaper and can be done quickly in areas and land that people may not want. “
McKeown, who was born in Glasgow, Scotland, moved to Kearny, New Jersey, where he played football in high school and then to North Carolina State. He has been with the Players Development Academy for 21 years and is widely recognized for his coaching skills. But he insists that “our reach must be greater”.
The next field will be built in Perth Amboy with an individual sponsor.
Camden, Elizabeth and Paterson are other sites under consideration before the program embarks on plans to expand nationwide to urban areas of major cities.
“There are a lot of places that can use these things as a positive influence,” McKeown said. “These fields serve as a distraction from all negative influences and provide positive socialization while promoting physical and mental well-being.”
Edited by Judith Isacoff and Matthew B. Hall