- TEACHING TEAMWORK: Volunteer coach Mark Farmer with young soccer players.
Around 5 p.m. on a recent Friday, dozens of children spilled onto the field at the Dalton Whetstone Boys and Girls Club in Southwest Little Rock to play soccer. Many still clad in their school uniforms of polo shirts and long pants, they ran past Mark Farmer, a volunteer coach.
One big-eyed boy picked up a ball and sprinted away as Farmer yelled after him a reminder, "No hands!"
Soccer is new for many of the kids. But Farmer's not worried about producing the next Lionel Messi at the moment. The club's aim is simpler and perhaps harder: to provide an after-school activity for the diverse group of Southwest Little Rock kids — including a growing Latino population, and longtime black and white residents — that allows them to see that "your neighborhood, even Little Rock, is not the whole world," Farmer said.
Farmer coached internationally, and another coach, Micah Johnson, played in Thailand and Australia. Farmer said that soccer, like other sports, teaches teamwork and discipline, but also opens up a global perspective to minorities in the United States.
As a jumble of kids run around with just a few balls, some cones and nonregulation goals, many consider the program already a success. But it will soon get a lot bigger.
Dr Pepper Snapple and Kum & Go have partnered to give the club a $20,000 Let's Play grant that will be awarded in a ceremony Thursday, Nov. 9. Along with equipment for several sports, the grant will provide the burgeoning soccer program with "soccer goals, soccer balls, goalie gloves, cones and scrimmage vests specifically to help get the soccer league started," said Heather McIlroy, a representative from Good Sports, one of the nonprofit partners in the Let's Play initiative.
Just a few months ago it would have been hard to imagine the soccer practices that have been occurring every Friday since mid-September, let alone the large grant.
When Scott Hamilton, a local lawyer and alumni of the Central Arkansas Boys and Girls Club, and Patrick Presley, the development director for the clubs, surveyed the same field in late June, the grass was not even mowed. "It was up to our chests," Presley said.
Hamilton, with a slight laugh, said, "Now I feel like we're out in Chenal."
For those in Little Rock, this is coded language with larger implications. Soccer is often seen as a sport for white kids who live in West Little Rock and other more affluent parts of town, Hamilton said.
Wakefield, where the Whetstone club is located, has a reputation of being a rough neighborhood. The club has long been a haven, said Nicholas Pettus, 34, who grew up in an apartment complex beside the club, separated from the field only by a metal fence.
Now a recruiter of diversity candidates for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, he remembers the violence and difficulty of growing up in Wakefield: watching shoot-outs he said "looked like the movies"; the smell of urine in the hallways coming back from school; a single mother killed while unloading groceries in the same spot where, earlier that same evening, Pettus had been playing with a sibling. He credits the Boys and Girls Club for helping him survive. It was an escape.
"You go from being literally hell, hell on earth in [the apartments], to heaven right there," he said. "We would do anything to get there."
Pettus said kids would jump that razor wire fence or even find wire cutters to make holes in it because it was too dangerous to even walk around the block to the front entrance.
"We had to find a way to get there that avoided the front way of danger and hostility," he said.
The club was "sacred ground," usually respected and kept away from the violence. Once, however, a man ran across the field shooting an AK-47 at someone he was chasing while Pettus was at the club. He was scolded by an employee of the club, Pettus said, and stopped.
"Everyone knew to respect that," Pettus said. "Southwest Little Rock is a different place with that Boys and Girls Club open."
In his day, Pettus was a star football player, and he said sports offered structure while teaching life skills. He credits sports and the club for his life now — a happy life with three kids and a good job.
When Hamilton and Presley began the process of renovating the field, they were thinking of the kids like Pettus who came to the club each day, and had in mind other sports.
But Presley wanted something that accommodated the diversity that has been growing in Southwest Little Rock.
In the last 10 years, there has a large influx of Latino residents, Presley said. And, because he used to live in Southern California, he was acutely aware that the "same tensions" were creeping up along racial lines. He wanted to address that directly with whatever the new program would be, and soccer, played commonly in Latin America, appealed.
Margaret Lewis, director of the Whetstone club, said there has not been too much to worry about yet, but there can be friction.
"Just from attending some of the neighborhood meetings you hear that maybe the two [communities] are not getting along with each other," she said.
The soccer program provides an opportunity to help stop that in the future generations, Hamilton said, because "when they're elsewhere: 'Hey, that's my buddy from soccer.' Not: 'That's a kid that I don't know.' "
The program invited kids from the local area, and made sure to reach out to St. Teresa's Catholic School, which is predominately Latino.
"Now the kids get to experience people from different backgrounds and cultures," said James Allen, athletic director at Whetstone. "You see now they're getting along just fine." The hope is that this is the foundation of future friendships.
Beyond the local implications, the global perspective of soccer, Hamilton says he hopes, will also allow kids to realize that local tiffs are less crucial, that the world is much larger.
"Now on TV they can watch soccer. They can see kids all over the world on Facebook. They say, 'I can do this, too.' It just changes their mindset," said Hamilton.
In the United States, it's a mindset less available to poor children. As income goes up, so does soccer participation — leaving communities like Wakefield behind. It became a national talking point after the failure of the United States men's team to qualify for the next World Cup in Russia that soccer — because of registration fees for certain clubs — costs too much, keeping potentially skilled athletes from participating. But to Hamilton that doesn't make sense.
"It's universal. It's inexpensive. I mean, you need a ball," Hamilton said with a bit of a laugh. "I mean, that's it.
"All over the world — in some of the poorest communities of the world — they produce some of the greatest soccer talent the world has ever seen. Why in the world can't kids right here? African-American and Latino kids — why can't they have the same experience as someone in Chenal?" Presley added.
The volunteer coaches they've recruited — Farmer, Johnson and Hamilton's childhood friend Steve Laster — said that for now, they are focusing on teamwork and giving kids an outlet and worrying about developing talent later.
"They really just want to come out here and have fun and release," said Johnson, who also coaches with the club FC Dallas Central Arkansas.
You can see this often: A kid jumps on another's back and beams a grin during one practice; a boy throws the fluorescent vests worn to demarcate teams into the air, letting them cascade around him as he giggles.
Laster, an engineer by day and soccer coach with Arkansas United, said that, for now, it's just about the confidence that you can play soccer.
The kids certainly believe it.
Laster remembers one kid putting on a vest, grabbing a ball and saying to him, "I'm a real soccer player now!"
"He was really fired up," Laster said.