Spencer Lalk, a physical therapy student at the University of St. Augustine (USA) in San Diego, California, believes that learning should be done through experiences and that oftentimes, kids need more opportunities to have meaningful experiences that further their education. So when he set out to create the nonprofit that has now become known as the Soccer Unity Project, he knew that it wouldn’t just be a normal extracurricular activity for school-age children, but would be full of learning opportunities far beyond those found in a normal soccer league.
The Soccer Unity Project hosts afterschool soccer leagues that are accessible to all socio-economic levels and take into consideration the needs and schedules of parents who might be working. What separates the program from similar offerings is that central to all this is a focus on providing meaningful leadership experiences for participants through business opportunities and a commitment to community engagement.
“We are not only creating soccer players, but good people with specific skills that will allow them to contribute and serve in their communities,” Lalk said. He is a product of a community-minded program himself, having served with AmeriCorps prior to studying for his undergraduate degree. He worked with inner city populations to teach life skills and now looks back and wishes he had that experience much earlier in life. This was part of his motivation for starting the Soccer Unity Project.
Also key to Lalk’s success is the flexibility provided to him through his program at USA, which is specifically designed for people who are working while studying. He has seen that the USA flex program is “filled with incredible individuals that work and support families while also obtaining doctorate degrees.” As he finishes his studies in 2017, he is already looking forward to how he can continue to grow the Soccer Unity Project and also apply his physical therapy knowledge in a service-oriented way.
The participants in the program’s leagues, now totaling over 1,000 kids, are exposed to a number of community service opportunities including cleaning up local beaches, organizing and participating in a refugee awareness game, writing letters to wounded soldiers, and hosting a holiday party for the homeless. Lalk believes “it is never too early to start” developing a focus on service. The program also provides leadership experiences that teach business, interpersonal, and financial literacy skills.
The community created by the Soccer Unity Project begins with its young participants and then stretches to include their parents, teachers, and collaborators in the local area. Lalk knows he is doing much more than preparing kids to play weekly soccer games, but that they walk away with a better understanding of how they too can impact their communities in big and small ways, just as he has done in his.