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Students and Friends Meet Through Summer Soccer
A Monday evening in July
The first Monday evening in July arrived warm. As the temperatures lingered in the mid 70’s at 5:30 p.m. on July 2, the sun still sat high enough in the sky to allow D49 Safety and Security Officer Dave Pratt to begin one of his favorite parts of the day. “I just find this to be so rejuvenating. For me it’s cardiac rehab,” he said while removing the contents of a rectangular canvas bag. “We feed your heart. We feed your spirit.”
In a few minutes, Pratt produced two pop-up soccer nets and had them placed evenly approximately 40 yards apart on a field behind Evans International Elementary School. By 6 p.m. the field held two short soccer pitches end-to-end, and players began organizing into kick-around groups.
“When you start seeing the numbers pick up, there’s this momentum that comes with that, this energy that these kids bring to the park,” Pratt said. “The smiles are electric.”
For two hours every Monday evening during D49’s summer break, kids of all ages are welcome to join Pratt in a program known as the Southeast Springs Soccer Initiative, or SeSSI. The players spend their time going head-to-head in supervised pick-up games, as well as learning skills from a team of volunteer coaches from the local community.
“I like that we are able to come out here and express ourselves on the field,” said Brandon Hinds, who will start the new school year as a sixth-grader at Horizon Middle School. By 8 p.m. the players go home after spending some quality time outside with their friends on a long summer night. Pratt believes the program helps the players build resiliency and lets families gather to see their kids engage with others through the game of soccer.
The health of the program
SeSSI officially kicked off in 2014, at Deerfield Hills and Soaring Eagles parks during Pratt's days as a police officer in Colorado Springs. He and a group of community members developed a simple plan: “You get a couple of soccer balls, and some nets, and take over the park and just connect people.” They recognized offering a soccer program at no cost engaged kids, giving them some structure to fill the downtime that comes with the end of school.
“Summers are often challenging,” explained Pratt. “There’s a lack of support as far as being in the school and having fun things to do. We try to take the parks over, so one night a week, there is a safe space for kids.” SeSSI organizers also invite local police officers and deputies to engage with the children during the summer events to help with their community policing efforts. "It is really cool to watch uniformed officers and deputies playing with our kids," said Pratt.
“It’s one of my favorite parts of the summer to do,” said Brandon.
SeSSI’s infrastructure is supported by a network of contributors, including Penrose St. Francis Health Services and Centura Health, which provide grant money to purchase some equipment and cover other expenses. Pratt said the program gets a boost from Pikes Peak Rush Soccer, which sponsors competitive SeSSI soccer teams. Participation in local neighborhoods is on the upswing, bringing in a typical crowd of 50 to 75 players most evenings.
“This program the team put together, and the volunteers here put together, has really harnessed the energy of the neighborhood,” observed Pedro Almeida, D49’s chief operations officer. Almeida visited the weekly SeSSI event on July 2 at EIES, noting the group of adults who gathered to watch the action. “[The volunteers] are servicing the social needs of the kids, servicing in the athletic needs of the kids in terms of building ties between them and their athletic skills, giving them a sense of community,” he added. “Soccer is the vehicle to bring them here, but it’s absolutely much more than just a game itself.”
A community united
The popularity of SeSSI presents a positive challenge. Now in its fourth year, SeSSI started with two parks, expanded to four the next summer, six parks the next, and this summer dropped down to five, allowing them to serve kids and families Monday-Friday. In addition to the all-ages pick-up games progam leaders also offered three-day soccer camps at no cost during the D49 summer calendar.
The effort is supported by parents, Pratt said, who help prepare the weekly roster along with passing out equipment, teaching soccer skills, and making sure kids get water during breaks. As a bonus, the young players have their own cheering sections.
“It gives me goosebumps. This is [a] really nice thing,” said Danielle Camargo. “Kids can play together.” Camargo, a native of Brazil, now lives in Colorado Springs with her family including her son, Thiago, a mainstay on the EIES field. “We love soccer. We watch every single game, and he wants to show his movements,” Camargo said.
Thiago enjoys running with the other players, but they are not his classmates. His family homeschools in their downtown neighborhood. They started exploring SeSSI when they heard about the free program, and now he and Danielle are making new friends.
“I’ve exchanged information with some moms,” Danielle said. “Now we are planning some play dates!”
The world stage
The fourth year of SeSSI coincides with the return of the World Cup to the international stage. Pratt is using the enthusiasm surrounding the tournament to reach his players on and off the field. “I challenge the kids to think beyond their neighborhood, to think internationally, and it’s perfect timing with the World Cup,” said Pratt.
One of the assignments he gives his players is to make their own soccer ball which they can share with the larger group throughout the summer SeSSI season. “There are kids around the country and around the world who don’t have soccer balls,” Pratt explained. “We do [the assignment] to teach them appreciation.”
Pratt also reports SeSSI received another two-year financial grant from their supporters at Penrose St. Francis and Centura Health. His goal is to keep the program healthy, and eventually self-sustaining, turning a simple idea to reach kids into a long-lasting summer resource for the D49 community.
“It’s one thing to try to describe it,” he said. “It’s another thing to see it. You have to see it.”