A free after-school program that introduced soccer to thousands of Buffalo kids over the years is getting a big boost from a big donor.
Soccer for Success was awarded $650,000 from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, bringing total contributions to $1.4 million and allowing the program to not only keep running but expand to new locations and serve more kids.
It's welcome news for the soccer moms watching their kids in the program this week over at Roosevelt Park in the city's Kenfield neighborhood.
"I like that she's active," said Camilla Allen, as she watched her 11-year-old daughter on the soccer field, "and it didn't cost us any money. It was free."
Soccer for Success is the U.S. Soccer Foundation's developmental program to reach kids in underserved neighborhoods, but it has become one of the signature initiatives of the Independent Health Foundation since the program was brought to Buffalo in 2012.
It runs 12 weeks each spring and fall for kids in kindergarten through the eighth grade. They fan out to neighborhood parks and schools across the city, where for 90 minutes, three days a week, they learn the fundamentals of soccer from trained coaches and mentors, who also talk to them about the importance of good nutrition and physical activity.
The program aligns nicely with the Wilson Foundation's goals of providing children - regardless of their ZIP code - the opportunity to play sports, particularly after a recent report found that only 16 percent of kids in the Buffalo region are active for the recommended one hour a day, said Jim Boyle, a foundation vice president.
"We know the statistics about obesity," said Michael Cropp, president of Independent Health and its foundation, "and we believe the best place to address this is with kids."
"It helps them be more physically engaged and form right attitudes about fitness and nutrition," Cropp said. "These are habits hopefully they will carry forward."
Run by the Buffalo Soccer Club, Soccer for Success has nearly 1,750 kids participating this school year, but plans to grow to 2,250 players next year and 3,000 the year after that, said Carrie Meyer, executive director of the Independent Health Foundation.
The number of sites also will increase from 20 to 23 over the next two years, when the program will expand into the City of Niagara Falls, Meyer said.
The funding not only pays for the training and paying of coaches, but provides for each child to receive a jersey, shin guards and a soccer ball. Fresh produce is offered once a week when a "farmers market" is brought to the soccer fields, Meyer said.
"I love it," said Chermeka Darby, a mother of three children in the program, "and they look forward to coming - even when I'm too tired to bring them."