The Verde Leaders program, like so many things in this pandemic-affected year, has required adaptability in order to work. The Verde Leaders team, working under the 4ATX Foundation banner of creating Austin’s next generations of leaders through soccer, has brought that adaptability.
“This year has been challenging for everyone, especially our Verde Leaders students and their families,” said Kaitlin Swarts, Austin FC’s Vice President of Community Impact and Executive Director of 4ATX Foundation. “We know the Latino community has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, which is why it’s more important now than ever for our students to have an outlet where they can learn and grow socially, emotionally, and physically, and find the community of support they need during this time.”
The program involves a number of middle schoolers and high schoolers who come together to develop their soccer skills while growing and learning from each other and from the mentors who lead their sessions. More than 430 students have participated since this work began in 2017. Currently, the program specifically partners with four Austin Independent School district schools — Burnet Middle School, Dobie Middle School, Eastside Memorial High School, and Northeast High School — but it’s open to students from Austin-area middle and high schools who want to make the commitment.
As Swarts explains, Verde Leaders is a positive youth development program that combines soccer with social-emotional learning, Restorative Practices, and mindfulness in order to help low-income youth find personal and academic success.
Much of this semester’s work has been made possible through online connections where Verde Leaders coaches guide students through individual workouts. Swarts notes that a participant just needs “a ball and five feet of space” to be involved in the virtual program. This year, students have participated from their rooms, the hallways of their apartment complexes, their garages, and their living rooms. To ensure every student has the equipment they need to participate in the program, Verde Leaders coaches have created and distributed activity packs for the kids, including a ball, a water bottle, a face mask and a set of four cones.
They’ve also been able to safely interact in person via a number of small-sided games, called Retas, initiating temperature checks and other health precautions.
The online sessions have been important, as they’ve given kids in the program a place to talk and process all they’re experiencing during this unparalleled year. But there’s also another dimension to what the kids in Verde Leaders get to experience — meeting and playing soccer with Austin FC Academy players.
In addition to weekend Retas, Verde Leaders and the Academy hosted two pop-up sessions that gave U15 players the opportunity to teach soccer skills, and Verde Leaders middle school students the chance to share their Team Circle and mindfulness exercises. Players united to build new friendships, learn from each other, and share their love of the game.
“Austin FC is committed to helping all youth — from our Academy players to our Verde Leaders students — develop the skills they need to become Austin’s future leaders, whether they grow up to lead on the soccer pitch or in the boardroom, Swarts said. “We want all of our players to feel connected to our Club and to be positioned to give back to our community.”
Whether it be a hybrid approach as they’ve taken, or resuming in-person activities, Verde Leaders will expand the program in 2021 and continue to meet the needs of students, families, and communities.
“Over the past several years, we’ve seen our Verde Leaders grow exponentially through the program,” Swarts noted. “Our students are finding their voices, they’re taking chances and trying new things, they’re feeling more connected to their schools and their communities. They’re realizing that the growing confidence and sense of purpose they feel on the soccer pitch can be carried with them into the classroom, into their home lives and their futures. We are eager to see how our Verde Leaders will continue to grow and transform through the program—if they can do it in the middle of a pandemic, just imagine what they will accomplish in the next few years!”