America SCORES is dedicated to helping youths build success on the field, in the classroom, and in the community. Its mission is to inspire urban youth to lead healthy lives, be engaged students, and have the confidence and character to make a difference in the world.
This is made possible through the hard work of the America SCORES team, its volunteers, and the generous donations of its supporters. I recently spoke with Dimi Venkov, Communications and Development Coordinator of America SCORES, and had the opportunity to learn more about what makes this non-profit so special.
America SCORES operates free after school programs in 14 cities across the United States. Its program consists of soccer and creative expression through poetry and community service. Roughly 8,000 students in more than 400 classrooms benefit from these programs annually.
A safe and healthy community for kids
"Numerous studies have shown how essential the hours from 3:00pm to 6:00pm are. After school, when kids go home, some may go into an empty house. All of their parents are at work," Venkov said.
"It's crucial to have them go where they'll be in a positive environment, be around other people, and participate in a curriculum that enhances their academic performance and enriches their lives."
Venkov said that America SCORES is all about creating that safe space.
"The thing that always strikes me anytime I see one of our programs is how raw the kids' emotions are, how honest they are about the problems in their community, and how they can work together to solve them," he said.
"These are nine- and ten-year-olds. What do they know about legitimate problems in their community? It turns out they know a lot. I think that kind of emotion, that kind of honesty, only comes out with creating that safe space after school."
In addition to benefiting the kids directly, America SCORES brings several other indirect benefits such as peace of mind to parents that their kids are safe while they work. An overwhelming number of parents, 83 percent by some accounts, agree that after school programs help working parents keep their jobs.
"Not all jobs accommodate parents who need to check out at 3:00pm to pick up their children and take them home," Venkov said. "Parents have lost jobs over that. To have an after school program where parents feel comfortable leaving their kids is essential for them as employees."
There are other indirect benefits of programs like these. Venkov said that in some areas such as Washington, D.C., America SCORES serves as a de-facto soccer league.
"In elementary schools and most middle schools, there are no organized teams," he said. "So we've really become a citywide league. We have a SCORES Cup competition for the kids and bussing to and from games."
He also said that the after school program builds a stronger sense of community among the coaches, teachers, students, and parents. "We have a game day once a week, and parents come out to watch their kids," he said.
"They get to know each other, and that's a bonding experience that just happens indirectly. It's great to see."
America SCORES' after school programs are completely free. "Nationwide, around 85 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch," Venkov said. "It's important to us that America SCORES is accessible to kids. We see the impact the program has had on them. Giving them a safe place and role models is essential for them as students and as people as they grow up. The only way we can make an impact is by making this program accessible to all families."
A winning combination
Where other after school programs may focus on arts and crafts, fitness, or nutrition, America SCORES has created a winning combination that blends academic success with creative enrichment, fitness, and community service.
"What's consistent across all three elements is the fact that the kids in our program find teams," Venkov explained. "No matter if they're playing soccer or writing poetry, they have a positive peer group around them to support them. This goes beyond after school. These kids work together and can always rely on their teammates through anything, even into middle school and high school."
He also stressed the value of having a positive role model. "We find kids that go through our program come out a lot more confident in school and a lot more confident about being an active member in their community. This overall confidence goes across the board, benefiting them for the future."
Soccer and poetry are an unusual, but effective pairing. Venkov explained that the program started in Washington D.C. in 1994 by Julie Kennedy. She built on her own experiences in soccer along with the positive peer relationships and role models that she had had in her life. She was also a poet.
"The program just developed organically and became a winning formula over the years," he said. "Overall, no matter if it's soccer, no matter if it's another sport, or poetry, or creative writing, or whatever it is, it's about giving an opportunity to be part of a team, to find their voice, to be creative, and to form a broader perspective. You know, it's a slam dunk."
The need for more after school programs
In preparing to speak with Dimi Venkov, I read a statistic that for every child who is in one of these programs, there are two more waiting to get in. There's clearly an urgent need for more after school programs.
Venkov acknowledged that various approaches exist and shared how America SCORES is planning to address this need.
"Our focus right now is expanding in the cities where we already have a program. This happens on a vertical and horizontal basis. Vertical is expanding grade levels and horizontal is expanding to other schools," he said.
"If you expand too quickly, you're not providing the same quality program in each of your schools. It's done on a case-by-case basis, and it comes down to resources. The more people we have working, the more money we have, the more high quality programs we can provide to more schools."
How individuals and companies can help America SCORES
Great programs depend on resources, both human and financial. Venkov offered a few ways individuals and companies can help:
Legislation — lobby for after-school funding, which is often one of the first things to be cut in times of austerity. Addressing the school board is another way to enact change.
Volunteering — Get involved directly by volunteering. "Come out and be referee on a game day, help the kids after school with their poetry or community service event planning, pitch in during one of their community services days, or become a board member and help expand the program."
Donations — Consider making a financial donation. Bonusly users can donate their earnings to America SCORES.
Companies can get involved through national or local corporate sponsorships. Sponsorship opportunities include events such as SCORES Cups and poetry slams. Participating in a SCORES Cup event is an amazing way to both raise money for a good cause and create a purposeful bond for employees who have the opportunity to play soccer with their colleagues.
Venkov also suggested holding a corporate service day. "It makes a huge impact on the program when you can get a team of motivated people to get a job done or help out with the kids," he said. "I think that helps the employees with team bonding. It helps them feel fulfilled in their own community."
We were all kids once, and many of us are parents, making supporting after school programs such as America SCORES a natural choice for many. Venkov is clearly passionate about America SCORES mission and leaves us with a few final thoughts:
"When you look at it from a policy standpoint, after school programs make sense. There's a gap and a need for them. America SCORES is one of many organizations that are making an essential impact on the community and the non-profit world. Programs like ours are always struggling to make a quality impact with the limited resources we have.
Anybody who has an after school program that they're passionate about, I encourage to get more involved. Find out more about the fantastic work that they're doing. These programs are really making an impact on the next generation."