Web Extra: Project GOAL Video

Darius Shirzadi, Javier Centeno and Peter Whealton help Rhode Island's disadvantaged youth through schoolwork and soccer.


Darius Shirzadi, Javier Centeno and Peter Whealton help Rhode Island's disadvantaged youth through schoolwork and soccer.

Drive around Central Falls, Pawtucket and Providence, and you’ll see kids playing pickup soccer games in parks, on lawns or just about anywhere they can find some green. Three men came up with a plan to leverage the sport — or dangle the carrot — with schoolwork for Project GOAL (Greater Opportunity for Athletes to Learn) a program that since 2004 has unified education and life skills lessons with soccer.

Darius Shirzadi and Javier Centeno met playing professional soccer for the Rhode Island Sting Rays. At the same time, they were running camps with inner-city kids and also coaching elite youth teams. “We were frustrated that a lot of the kids from those areas couldn’t participate because they couldn’t pay the fees,” says Shirzadi. Then they met Sting Rays season ticketholder Peter Whealton, chairman of CORE Business Technologies in East Providence, and with his business background, they developed the program and raised money so that kids could play for free while also supplementing their education.

Now eighty students participate in Project GOAL each year, meeting Tuesdays and Fridays for hour-and-a-half sessions focused on schoolwork, followed by ninety minutes on the field. The program is a labor of love for the three founders, who also work full-time jobs. “We came up with the format, which was to get kids off the street, make them do their schoolwork and use soccer as a reward for staying out of trouble,” says Whealton. “These kids want to play soccer, and to get to play soccer, they have to do their work.”

Middle-schoolers, both girls and boys, receive T-shirts and are provided with soccer equipment as needed, and they get after-school help from accredited teachers and mentors from area colleges. Then it’s off to the field. More than thirty-two students have earned the grades and skills necessary for scholarships to area private high schools like Rocky Hill, Wheeler, Providence Country Day and Moses Brown and many have gone on to colleges such as American University, Clark, RISD and URI.

The challenge is funding and keeping up with demand. “We have eighty in the program, but we have 150 kids show up for tryouts, and a waiting list that has been growing,” says Shirzadi.

Centeno wishes there had been a program like this when he was growing up. He came to the United States from Colombia at age eleven in 1978, then graduated from Central Falls High School and the Community College of Rhode Island. “Soccer was the only thing I knew and I didn’t put any emphasis on academics,” says Centeno. “I’m a firm believer that if I had been part of a program like Project GOAL, I would have had an opportunity to attend a better college. We have given a lot of these kids an opportunity for a better future.” projectgoal.org

Check out the video PSA on Project GOAL.

Photo by Alex Gagne. Project GOAL PSA by Devlo Media on Vimeo.

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