Players PromiseMay 18, 2018

Making an Impact On and Off the Field with Starfinder

In the Greater Philadelphia area, nearly 40 percent of the city’s children are living in poverty. A lack of public funding has made it difficult for these children to access the tools and programs designed to help them reach their full potential. This creates a variety of problems that impact the future potential for these children, including a high school dropout rate that has climbed to over 30 percent.

When Liverpool, England native Tony Williams moved to the Philadelphia area and became a scout for the U.S. Soccer Federation, he was surprised to find that inner city communities often had extremely limited access to sports. Inspired by the positive impact that soccer had on his own life and aware of the challenges faced by many in the city, he set out to bridge that gap.

Williams founded Starfinder in 2002 with the goal of helping under-served youth by promoting the development of crucial life and leadership skills through the game of soccer, while also providing a place of academic and emotional support. Sports isn’t the focus at Starfinder, but instead the vehicle the organization uses for outreach. “We use sports, in our case soccer, as a hook to engage young people. Our intent is much broader than just turning them into great athletes,” said Executive Director Heidi Warren. “We’re really about helping them achieve their fullest potential. So we provide a wide range of support and a really intentional community as well as a safe space with deep relationships with adults and mentors.”

At its start, Starfinder programs were scattered at various outreach sites around the city, relying on the strength of their partnerships for success. However, the lack of a homebase presented challenges for the organization. “It was challenging because we really didn’t have a chance to sustain programming over long periods of time,” Warren, who has been with the organization for 16 years, explained. “Partnerships sometimes would live and die by the strength of the partner organization or school.” Seeking more stability, Starfinder purchased a facility in the Manayunk neighborhood in Philadelphia in 2008.

While a space of their own provided greater longevity for programs, it also caused a shift in the organization’s focus. “By having our programming located in our facility we really were no longer serving our target population as effectively at the younger ages,” Warren explained. “So that motivated us to really put our efforts much more fully into our high school program and make that our flagship program.”

The shift in focus allowed the Senior Leaders program to flourish at Starfinder. Each year approximately 100 high school students participate in an athletic and leadership curriculum that runs from November through May. While the students are only required to attend two days a week, one dedicated to soccer practice and one dedicated to leadership and life skills development,  it has become common for many to spend much more time at the facility. “Most of our kids come here, on average, I would say, 3-4 days a week,” Director of Youth Services Kate Sandy explained. “On the days that aren’t their core days we offer academic support in the form of tutors, and on Fridays we usually have optional programs such as college trips, and professionalism workshops.”

For many of our kids, given the neighborhoods they come from, we’re maybe the safest space they have in their community.

Starfinder is more than just a place for recreational fun and school support for these young people. Many of the students are seeking a safe escape from the challenges they face in their personal life and home environment. “For many of our kids, given the neighborhoods they come from, we’re maybe the safest space they have in their community. In terms of physical safe space, but also emotionally safe space and strong relationships with adults and their peers,” Sandy explained.

Starfinder coaches also act as mentors in the Senior Leaders program, developing relationships of trust with the teens that allow them to play a supportive role. “Some of them live in poverty, there are issues of privilege and race and gender and homophobia and on and on,” Warren said of the issues faced by the Starfinder population. “You can’t address and help kids build resilience around those issues until you have a really deep and trust-based relationship. That is one of the things I think that really distinguishes Starfinder from a youth sports entity.”

In addition to focusing on providing a safe space and trauma-informed services, Starfinder is also pushing for equality in sports. There are 22 different nationalities and 15 different languages represented in the programs. “A big portion of Starfinder’s population are immigrant youth. So there’s this incredible shared love that brings kids together from all walks of life,” Warren said explaining the impact of soccer’s global popularity. “There’s a way in which soccer is a unitier, it’s a common space and a common ground that I think is unusual, possibly even unique among major sports.”

This common ground is what attracts students like Mithsaika, who moved to Philadelphia with her family after surviving the earthquake in Haiti in 2009. Mithsaika came to Starfinder facing challenges that included acclimating to a new culture and language. With the support of the Starfinder community, she went on to serve as a summer camp intern, captain her high school soccer team, be elected vice-president of her class, and deliver the keynote speech at her graduation.

One of Starfinder’s other core goals revolves around pushing for gender equity in youth sports. “For girls, it’s the same game whether you’re playing it as a girl or as a boy. The rules don’t change, the equipment doesn’t change, the field doesn’t change,” Warren said of the vehicle the game provides for equity. “Whether you’re having gender specific teams, or you’re doing co-ed, it gives a lot of opportunity to level the playing field between the two genders.”

In terms of measuring success, Starfinder places the most importance on the feedback they receive from their participants. Not only do the programs provide an opportunity to develop leadership and teamwork skills, but they present a forum where teens can build interpersonal communication skills. “We really care about youth voice and choice in the programming and the kids are given opportunities every day to provide us feedback about how the program is going and how they see things,” Sandy explained.

At the end of every practice, each team participates in “team time,” which welcomes discussion and feedback on how the practice and programs are going. “It helps kids learn how to give feedback which is something that adults can’t even always do really well. It helps them to think critically about how the practice went and how they’re doing, and it gives us feedback,” Sandy said.  

It’s a lifelong sport. It's not something you just play when you’re a kid and you move on.

Starfinder also looks at the quantitative data from the communities that they serve. Since 2008, the organization has seen 95-100 percent of their attending seniors graduate from high school. In the city where less than half of high school seniors go on to college, Starfinder has seen 91 percent of their participating seniors continue to higher education.

Looking to the future, Starfinder plans to more aggressively take their successful high school model out into communities to reach younger children who can’t make it to the facility on their own. The goal is to get children involved in the game from a younger age, and foster a community of support through the sport. “It’s a lifelong sport. It's not something you just play when you’re a kid and you move on,” Warren said. “This creates a really great community where people stay connected to each other and to their teams, and to other people who play throughout their lives and that’s pretty powerful.”

While the organization generates revenue from renting out their facility for pickup soccer and events, it looks to individuals as well as grants and sponsorships to provide the rest of their funding. The Major League Soccer Players Association is proud to support Starfinder programs as a part of the Players Promise commitment  to give back to organizations that provide access and growth opportunities for those who can benefit the most from the chance to play soccer.

You can follow Starfinder on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Those interested in supporting Starfinder’s efforts can help by donating directly, purchasing items off of the Amazon Wish List, or donating gear and supplies.