For one, soccer provided a “safe space” to learn about and navigate the wider world.
For the other, soccer launched a broad journey that has opened avenues.
For both, soccer is enabling them to provide pathways for others.
“Soccer became a safe space for me to learn about the world in a different way,” Sporting Kansas City’s Director of Community Impact Chioma Atanmo said in a recent interview with the kcsoccerjournal.com at Sporting Club’s Compass Minerals National Performance Center.
As she grew up a “pastor’s kid” in and around California’s Bay Area playing soccer, the most universal of all sports also helped her build social skills and make friends. “Athletes, no matter background, religion, or beliefs, when you are on a team, you all have the goal to win. You learn how to problem solve and learn conflict resolution to put differences aside to help the team win.”
“Soccer has taken me on an interesting journey, all over the place,” said Sporting Kansas City Academy Director Declan Jogi last Tuesday evening via Zoom. Born in Rhodesia, eight years before Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, Yogi’s soccer journey brought him to King College in Tennessee in 1999. After graduation, Jogi played professionally in Zimbabwe and in the United Soccer League in the States with Charlotte Eagles.
Atanmo has her own vignettes to arrange, like we all do. Now, with Sporting Kansas City, she works to broaden the instruments and vary the notes with which children and young adults in Kansas City and beyond can orchestrate their own life melodies via soccer.
But… there are issues in soccer within the United States, especially for those with fewer resources. Exposure to the sport amidst a bountiful landscape of sports can be faint, if at all. Access to the sport due to a dominant pay-to-play youth structure and the lack of a cultural foundation can be out of the question. True, it is not often that one sees kids kicking around a soccer ball in any green space or on any street in Kansas City unless they have a proper ball – not one made of rags or whatever kids can be compelled to find – and a proper color-coordinated uniform.
Enter Atanmo, who initially joined Sporting in 2018 working in youth soccer. Two years later, the diverse and experience talent gained her current position. And one year later, she guided the transformation of The Victory Project, originally established by Sporting Kansas City in 2013 with the primary focus of helping kids with cancer.
“In 2021, The Victory Project was featured on our jersey front, which was the first time that a nonprofit was featured on an MLS jersey,” she reflected. “We looked at that as an opportunity to expand our reach and to ask, ‘How can we use our resources to do more in the community?’ The cool thing was that a lot of different departments were already doing that, but we needed a brand for a way to tell that story.”
Atanmo and her small Victory Project staff expanded their mission beyond continuing to “enhance and enrich the lives of children with cancer” with the new Soccer for All Kids program that includes two pillars:
- We will make the sport of soccer more accessible to children with disabilities.
- We will make the sport of soccer more accessible to children with limited financial resources.
There was no need to “reinvent the wheel” as, according to Atanmo, “Kansas City has the most charities [per capita] in America.
“We started to work with a lot of organizations and our corporate partners and ask, ‘What are your needs? How can we combine our resources to impact what you are doing?’”
A Big question
If an ambitious and charitable club such as Sporting Kansas City is going to serve its community well and make “soccer more accessible to children with limited financial resources”, it must serve the city’s entire ethnic spectrum. The two-part question then becomes – Are ample opportunities in soccer being provided for all races, including those in the urban core, and is Sporting’s own academy inclusive in its activity in the Kansas City Metro Area?
“We are a lot further along than where we’ve been in terms of the diversity in our [academy] system,” said Jogi.
Yet, Jogi recognizes reality.
“Our system, to a degree, reflects the club system. If you show up at any of the facilities on a Saturday that is hosting league games, whether it’s North Kansas City, in the south in Olathe, or in Wyandotte on the west side of the city, you are not going to see a lot of diversity,” he said. “But it is a reflection of our counties, a reflection of our city, of our area. To a degree, the [Sporting Kansas City] Academy reflects that.
“We do, though, also have relationships within the city in the urban areas through different organizations: Global FC; Mattie Rhodes Center [Soccer for Success program]; Ryogoku [Academy], which is a new school in the city,” Jogi added. “I personally have relationships with some of the individuals involved in leadership of those programs. We are always thinking of ways we can support them in whatever that looks like as a club or as an academy.”
And the Soccer for All Kids initiative has been active in supporting the clubs Jogi mentioned and more as it has:
- provided soccer equipment for the Boys and Girls’ Club of Kansas City, as well as sponsored some of them in playing recreational soccer.
- donated 200 soccer balls to Ryogoku Academy
- brought in Sporting players per Atanmo “to show [kids] that the players on the field look like you; they are regular people; and they care about how they can help you improve your performance on the soccer field.”
In addition to many other examples. Generally, Soccer for All Kids has two components:
- The Emerging Sports Leaders Scholarship provides four $5000 scholarships for kids who have had soccer play some kind of influential role in his or her life. Recipients can use those funds to go to university, community college, trade school, or whatever the case is.
- The Soccer Assist Grant program grants anywhere from $500-2500 every 30-60 days.
“We recognize that we can’t necessarily solve every problem out there, but if there is a kid who wants to play soccer, if there is a kid who needs equipment, or needs help with transportation fees, we want to keep them in the game,” said Atanmo.
The program has given out more than $65,000 since its launch two years ago. But Atanmo wants it to do more.
“It runs year-round, and we are working on getting it out to more people. People within Kansas, Missouri, and our academy affiliates in various states – like Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska – can qualify for this grant,” she revealed. “Anyone who hears about the program can reach out. [If you] have one soccer team that has 15 kids, and you would like cleats for them, they would qualify for this grant.”
From the Ground up
The issues of exposure to soccer and access to soccer come into plain sight for Atanmo on a daily basis.
“With our Soccer for All Kids [program], a lot of the groups we are working with have never been to a Sporting game before or are even familiar with the players on the field,” she said. “A lot of it is basic introduction into here is where our stadium is, here are clinics you can come to, here is what I do.”
And here is where Atanmo’s vast experience and diverse skills find a larger platform. Forced to figure out how to live life without playing soccer competitively due to a knee injury, the University of Arizona graduate has adapted and found success in multiple avenues. She was an intern in game-day operations, then at various times the team nutritionist, the head fitness coach, and the director of operations in her six years at FC Tucson before moving onto Sporting KC. Concurrently with her Director of Community Impact position, Atanmo is an nutritionist and wellness coach via her Mindful Appetite business.
Thus, Atanmo can show not only the children served by the organizations Soccer for All Kids works with but also the people who work within the organizations how soccer can expand their world of opportunity.
“That could be sharing internship opportunities or part-time matchday associate opportunities for people and trying to connect them with different ways to be involved in the soccer ecosystem,” she explained. “It is easy to assume that you have to love soccer to work in soccer. But we need accountants, we need people in marketing, we need photographers. We bring people into the stadium for a tour to show them that the stadium is for you; don’t be afraid to come in here.”
And if that means that some end up getting involved with The Victory Project’s missions, then all the better.
“There is a lot of turnover in the nonprofit space because people get burned out. It is a lot of work. How can we create a sustainable ecosystem of, ‘If this is our touchpoint with you to provide [soccer] equipment, how can we continue to keep you engaged in other ways?’”
But it all comes back to the foundational principle of helping kids find the joy and the opportunities for growth and the future that soccer can provide.
“The challenge has been consistency. The feedback that we’ve gotten from the community is that people will do a clinic once, then it’s one and done. So, we try to [make them aware] we are providing dollars for equipment,” Atanmo revealed. “If [they] are wanting to come to a game, but don’t have the means to purchase a ticket, [those people] can reach out to us so we can bring you out and provide a nice experience for you. Also, there are a lot of events on the youth soccer side that we do, as do a lot of the organizations that we partner with. More people can take advantage of that. Overall, the conversations have been positive. It’s that consistency piece, how can we continue to show face and show people that this club is for you?”
The Next Steps
As Soccer for All Kids expands its influence and impact, there must be a plan for kids who take hold and become invested in soccer as a way for them.
“The next iteration is continuing to build trust in the community and showing kids that if you really want to play soccer, we want to connect you to the resources to keep you in the game and not make you feel like when you hit a certain age this gets too expensive or you feel you are not being seen by the right people,” Atanmo stated. “So, it is having those conversations with our academy coaches, academy director, or academy affiliate coaches and asking, ‘How can we help kids who normally don’t have exposure to those high-quality events be seen?’”
A success story is currently unfolding in Sporting’s Academy according to Jogi, as a player discovered via Global FC has joined the U-17 Academy team and is making his way. Furthermore, all teams and players from U-14 and up are fully funded by Sporting’s Academy.
It is a significant leap for a young player with limited experience to become a part of Sporting’s Academy and ultimately fulfill a perhaps dream of becoming a professional. But Sporting, via matches played against clubs serving kids with limited financial resources and other avenues, is in the picture.
“[Ethnic diversity] is a big question. We as a staff and an academy… are open to conversation and to opportunities for players,” said Jogi, who is also the head coach of the Academy U-19s. “But at the end of the day, [the Academy’s goal] is not just about just bringing players in to get to a number [to accurately reflect Kansas City’s diversity], it’s about bringing the right players in at the right time for the end goal of creating professionals.
“I won’t sit here and say that we have every player, no matter their background, in the Academy that is supposed to be in the Academy. We are a work in progress we are very aware of what’s in the area ethnically or not. The goal is to make sure that players, no matter their background or ethnicity, have opportunity.”
Through Sporting Kansas City’s academy system, The Victory Project’s Soccer for All Kids initiative, and Jogi and Atanmo, youth and young adults of all backgrounds, even those with limited resources, have a place to go and grow. And a place for those who want to help.
“Sports have a beautiful way of teaching life skills,” reflected Atanmo. “And if I can show kids that they can do that and show them there is a professional path for them [I will have embodied my passion].”