Project GOAL Motivates Young Students to Study with Soccer

The program has been using soccer and study to help kids get into their dream high schools for more than fifteen years.

“Javier was from Central Falls, and he thought we should do more of our soccer clinics there. But it was very different from when we did camps and clinics in Barrington or Coventry or Scituate,” Shirzadi says.

Central Falls is home to immigrants from Liberia, Colombia, Venezuela and, more recently, Cape Verde.

Shirzadi waves to a student who scampers through the cafeteria on the way to join the soccer-playing fray. “It’s got a very diverse makeup, and everybody loves soccer.”

While the passion for soccer is strong, paying for elite camps seems impossible when the poverty rate in Central Falls hovers around 30.7 percent and the median annual income is $30,794. At Project GOAL alone, 88 percent of the families live at or below the poverty level, and 84 percent of the kids receive free or reduced lunch at school.

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Project GOAL students, teachers and administration on the soccer field at Moses Brown. Photography by Alex Gagne.

Kerrissa Heffernan, the director of engaged sport at the Swearer Center at Brown University, says income can have a huge impact on who gets to play sports. “Children in Providence neighborhoods want the same opportunities children in more affluent suburbs are afforded: safe places to play and access to a range of sports. Unfortunately, the single greatest determinant of children’s participation in a sport is family income,” she says. “Children in families that make over $100,000 are twice as likely to play sports as children living in families that make less than $20,000.”

Shirzadi and Centeno saw this and recognized that if they were going to bring soccer clinics to Central Falls, they needed to do it differently.

“We ran the camps here and realized that we couldn’t really charge kids to be a part of them,” says Shirzadi. “So we basically ended up running weeks of free camp for the kids.”

In addition to making soccer more accessible, Shirzadi and his team realized that education would offer even more opportunities to these kids.

“I started to learn from Javier that there is a big gap between sports and a focus on education and its importance,” says Shirzadi. “There’s also not a lot of good role models, and the dropout rate in Central Falls at that point was really bad.”

That’s when the idea for a free soccer program that focused on academics as well as sports was born. And even though the program began with a focus on Central Falls, over the past fifteen years it’s served more than 1,200 kids from Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence and beyond.

“Our real sell to that is that, look, you’re in this program for free, there is no preference over anybody, you either follow the rules or you don’t — you can be dropped, and we have a lengthy waiting list of kids who want to be in the program,” Shirzadi says. But this level of success didn’t begin immediately.

“It took us a couple of years to get enough funding together, even just to do twenty kids, but then we started to obtain grants, get local funders, established nonprofit status, and we got some sponsorship, and it kind of rolled on from there,” he says. “The more funding we got, the more kids we enrolled.”

And the more kids who enrolled, the more local private schools saw the program as a way to boost their diversity.

“When we first started, I met the headmaster of Wheeler and he loved what we stood for in terms of academics and diversity, and he said that all private schools need that type of thing,” says Shirzadi. “He told us that they all had pretty vast endowments in terms of increasing diversity, but they never knew who the right kids were, who could transition from public school to private school. And that’s where we came in.”

Annually, two to four students are accepted into private institutions. Out of the seventy-three kids attending the program this year, four have already been accepted to private schools; all have received some sort of financial aid.

How far the program has come.

An afternoon at Project GOAL begins with juice boxes and snacks. Kids convene in the cafeteria, trading jokes and smiles, while teachers sit together and go over the plan for the day. Almost all of the teachers, save for Alves, are volunteers who often pack up their bags after working at other schools and come to Project GOAL to teach anew.

Among them is Dennis Skehan, a retired college professor and software developer who works with students on their Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT) prep.

“I have three rules, and one unwritten rule,” he says as kids file into the classroom. “The first is that there’s no talking when I’m talking, the second is to never go near the teacher’s desk since this isn’t our property, and third is to be respectful when guests enter.”

He leans in conspiratorially. “And my unwritten rule is they have to have two feet on the floor at all times.”

As he says this, kids squirm in their seats to try and reduce the temptation to rest their feet on the metal bars between desks. While Skehan might seem strict, he treats the students with respect and expects them to do the same. After the kids settle down, they have a discussion about composite numbers, then Skehan lays out the schedule ahead of them. “So at 3:40 we’ll start homework, and you can have your snacks, then you’ll need to fill out your logs and your third quarter goals.”

As they get to work, he walks around the room, checking in with each student.

The class is a diverse mix, with a few girls sprinkled in, and some of the students have already been accepted to schools like Wheeler, Bishop Hendricken and Moses Brown, complete with financial aid packages.

One of Skehan’s students is Geronimo Idarraga, an eighth grader at Woodlawn Catholic in Pawtucket, who’s been coming to Project GOAL every Tuesday and Friday after school for four years. “He’s a bright kid,” Skehan says, nodding at the bespectacled Geronimo, who is working on his science homework.

Geronimo’s dad told him about the program, and since he’s a huge soccer fan — Athletico Nacional from Medellin, Colombia, is his favorite team — he was immediately interested. Like many of the kids, for Geronimo, the incentive for coming is the game and the camaraderie.
“I made a good friend here, Oscar,” he says, adjusting his glasses. “He was in eighth grade last year, so he’s not here anymore, which is sad. But I love coming here to play soccer and make friends.”

Geronimo hopes to get into a private school, and then go on to study engineering in college. “It’s a good experience, and if someone wasn’t sure if they wanted to do it, I’d tell them to try it for a year,” he says.

For other kids, like twelve-year-old Brandon Molina, Project GOAL is an opportunity to learn how to handle tough situations with grace.