BigShot Q&A: Soccer in the Streets Executive Director – Jill RobbinsJill Robbins discusses SITS, a charity which helps underprivileged children using soccer
by Herb Scribner | Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Jill Robbins is the Executive Director of Soccer in the Streets, a charity based in Atlanta. Started in 1989, Soccer in the Streets’ initial focus has shifted from being an outreach to spread soccer to underprivileged neighborhoods to teaching life skills and development through soccer. Robbins is also a board member of the Urban Soccer Collaborative, which reaches out to several different communities to start up similar programs.
Can you talk a little bit about Soccer in the Streets (SITS)?
JR: It started off in the inner city of Atlanta working with boys and girls [soccer] clubs and so forth and particularly with African American kids, because of the real low percentage of minority participation. And over time it grew nationwide because it was such an obvious fit to bring positive activity to kids. It encouraged kids from all different backgrounds to avoid risky behaviors as well as [teaching] really important life skills.
And we, about 10 years into it, really started to embrace the idea of youth development using soccer rather than it being … just really soccer for soccer-sake. It became more about what do kids learn from their participation and how do we create a deeper level of service and impact in these communities. It went from being more of a periodic or temporary type of activity to being something much more long-term where kids were participating in year-round afterschool [programs] or out of school programs.
We’ve seen a longer range of impact where kids and teens who are [now] adults … are forging their way into careers because of soccer. We use soccer as a medium for teaching these character traits and skills that make them become employable and independent and successful adults.
Many will argue that sports like football and basketball are more popular in America. So why choose soccer as the medium to reach out?
JR: I would say soccer is so universal and global, plus it translates well to teaching really conceptual things. And it serves as a great analogy for life, because it’s so accessible, because you don’t need to be 6-foot-something or exceptionally fast, it accommodates and encloses all kinds of people. Sports like basketball and football seem to be more reliant on physical attributes. Soccer is the world’s sport, it’s the Beautiful Game, it is a perfect way to teach about life, and there’s nothing more universal than soccer, except maybe music.
What’s the goal with SITS?
JR: We’re a group of people who are passionate about the game. And more so than anything, we want to inspire kids because soccer inspires us on a daily basis. That’s why we’re passionate about it. If we can inspire kids, then they can find whatever it is that motivates them [to be] successful in life. Soccer’s the way to do that and it’s a non-confrontational and very accessible way to engage kids. I tell people all the time that we’re kind of sneaky, that kids come in thinking they’re going to learn about soccer, but they learn so much more. If we can help kids be employable and self-sufficient, then we’re helping society because then that’s one-less kid that’s [going to] be reliant on handouts or [the] government to be taken care of. They’re going to be able to care for a family and provide for them, they’re going to have confidence going forward and be able to navigate the peaks and valleys of life, and soccer is the way we do that.
What are some of the benefits of SITS?
JR: I think it depends on the age. For … elementary-age kids, it’d be more about fun or getting to play with friends, learning a new sport and being active, running and seeing how it’s good for your body and your mind, and [being] more engaged … For teenagers, it would be more about the social aspects of it, meeting other kids your age; but also how you’re going to develop fitness and it’s going to help you stay out of trouble and [making] good decisions. You’re going to learn [the] kinds of things [that] you’re going to have to do to stay out of trouble, [to] stay in school and eventually college and work, so that you can … present yourself in a way where people can respect you and people will want to either hire you or associate with you and help them understand that this is a building block for your future and you’ll get to know people.
And the other thing is [through SITS] you have the potential for employment. Last year, we employed around 35 kids to do various things within the organization. Either it’s coaching, officiating, working on project or events, they were able to actually put those skills into practice and earn money. Money is a pretty motivating thing for a teenager. They understand that there’s an immediate reward for the effort that they’re putting into this. So it really depends on the age and what’s going to motivate them and that’s how we would appeal. And there [are] still challenges in getting teens involved. They’re often times not easily motivated, especially if they come from a background where they tend to feel a little hopeless or beat down. You sort of inch them into those levels of achievements that could lead to something bigger and help them see the potential in themselves.
What are some experiences you’ve gone through while working at SITS? Any significant/special memories?
JR: There [are] tons. I can say a big moment that kind of, in a negative way, was when we first started off. My husband and I worked with Soccer in the Streets in Ohio in some of the poorest and toughest neighborhoods. [There was] a kid that showed a lot of promise, but had no family support, we tried to do everything but adopt him. He really enjoyed playing and we could see how monumental the task was when we couldn’t keep him involved in the program and maybe a couple of years later … he was killed in gunfire in gang activity. And having to go to his funeral and handing over – probably one of the few remaining things of this boy’s positive life – was a picture of him in a soccer uniform with his team. And handing that to his mom, that was heart-wrenching and it still is.
But at the same time, it’s seeing a kid who was unruly, who was defiant, who really was uninspired and unmotivated kind of turn his life around and get it together and admit, ‘Hey, I guess I don’t know everything and I do need to be involved in something. And soccer, I’ve learned to love soccer and want to be involved.’ Now there’s this kid who goes into neighborhoods in some of the toughest places in Atlanta and works with kids who are [like] him. He’s able to affect change for them and inspire them and say, ‘Hey, you may not consider it, but this is a great sport. I love it; I want you to see why.’ And turning kids, who don’t have much going for them, turn them into soccer fans and soccer players and motivated to make a difference in their own community and do well for [them].
How often do you receive personal donations? How often do you receive applications to be volunteers?
JR: I would say that we have opportunities through events and campaigns pretty much year-round. So we receive donations pretty steadily throughout the year, and the one thing that people need to know no donation is too small to make a difference. The average – and this is in the whole non-profit world – individual donation is less $100. And that cumulative effect of people caring people about a cause is what really drives the philanthropy in the United States. People seem to think charities rely on grants and scholarships, but that’s more for the successful charities. Their most critical revenue comes from individuals. No contribution is too small and that those small contributions add up and make a big difference.
According to your website, SITS is based out of and works heavily in Atlanta, but there’s also an indication that SITS is looking to expand. Where would you like to see SITS expand to?
JR: Our main focus over the last 10 years has been Atlanta because we wanted to create a greater depth of service, so we wanted to do it right. So when you spread out, it’s like to drink a massive pond with a straw, you can’t really do it. You have to focus on a small area, get it right, and then try and replicate it in other areas. And we do have associations with other organizations and individuals who are doing very similar work in other communities throughout the U.S. through our work with the Urban Soccer Collaborative. We’re one of the founding organizations of that collective.
There [are] already a lot people in the trenches, doing the work, and there’s no point in trying to duplicate efforts. Let’s partner, let’s collaborate, let’s work together. We just need to be cooperative about this which is a big difference from even five or six years ago. It used to be where all these different organizations … were sort of pitted against each other for scarce funding. But we realized that we’re all trying to accomplish the same thing, maybe doing it in … different [ways]. There’s no point at looking at each other as adversaries. We need to look at ways [of] sharing information, sharing resources, working together. But there’s a great sense of cooperation because there’s still a huge need and nobody’s arguing that. We just need to figure out who can do what and work together.
What locations have received a lot of requests for assistance?
JR: There are folks we still maintain relationships with like Philadelphia, and other places like Georgia and we get inquires quite often. And we’re also partnering with a couple of organizations to work on a project in Haiti. So there’s definitely interest in being able to take our model to other places, now it’s a question of priorities what we can do and manage to do well with the resources we have and not split our attention too much to take away from what we’re already doing to expand. We don’t want to expand for expansion sake. If the opportunity presents itself, we will.
SITS has a lot of different activities and programs. How often are you personally attending different programs?
JR: I would say at least two-to-three times a week I am out there with the kids. I absolutely crave my kids fix, because I have to stay connected to it. But I also enjoy the resource development side of things too, being able to talk to people about their work and tell them the success stories and tell them why investing in programs is important and valuable and how they, as an individual or a company, can make a difference and see this flourish right before their very eyes. I love doing that. It’s as important as the actual work because our stakeholders, the kids, their families and the community are one side of the coin. You also have another set of stakeholders that are investing their precious resources. And even if it’s market exposure, if you’re a sponsor, or if it’s the knowledge of knowing you’re doing something good for your community and making a difference, that’s what people really get a charge out of. And that’s why they continue to support what we’re doing because they see the change that their investment makes.
Which program or activity would you say is the most beneficial for kids? Which has been your favorite to watch or oversee?
JR: They all serve different purposes. I think the one that’s the most fun is the Street Cups, because it really takes into the essence of soccer … The way it’s set up where we form teams on the fly, the only rule we have is they have to have someone on their team they don’t know, it’s small-sided game, they referee their own game, so they have to solve their own [problems], they have to learn how to solve their own conflicts, they make their own rules, they take complete ownership of the game.
But it also puts the game back into perspective – it’s not about the referees, it’s not about the fancy uniforms, it’s not about having perfectly-lined fields with big regulation goals, it’s about a ball and a kid and two targets and sometimes we do it a little bit more fancy with different colored t-shirts and stuff like that, with cones and mock-up goals. And other times it’s a little more organic, but it really takes the game back to its routes, where kids get together, they play, they have fun, and they learn … And it’s a beautiful thing, because they can play all day if you let them.
And that’s what I really think soccer in the U.S. is missing – kid-driven, kid-owned, and the essence of the game being right there in their neighborhoods, their schools and their parks … Kids need to know you don’t need a coach out their blowing a whistle in order to have a game. We’ve played in parking lots, in gyms, wherever you can set up a game, you can play. And I think that’s the one thing, that Street Cup, has helped promote that the essence of soccer belongs to kids. That’s what teaches them – the game teaches them, we don’t.
You’ve done a lot of technical work, from computer industries to public schools, and now you’re an executive director dealing with soccer. How did this come to be? Have you always been a fan of soccer?
JR: I’ve been doing soccer since the early 80s. And at the time I was doing all the other stuff, I was doing a real job to support my soccer habit. I never played soccer as a kid; there wasn’t an opportunity that was available to me. And somebody approached me on the job and said, ‘Hey, have you ever wanted to coach kids?’ and I said, ‘I always wanted to coach softball.’ And he said, ‘I coach soccer,’ so I said, ‘I don’t know anything about soccer.’ He said, ‘I’ll teach you, you’ll be fine. Probably know a little more than the kids.’ So I started coaching three, four, and five year olds and just absolutely fell in love with it. It’s easy to understand, it’s active, it flows, it’s skillful and it requires thinking.
My friend and I noticed there weren’t many minorities involved, so that’s where the heart came in to try to help kids that weren’t being included. It just so happened that this friend of mine and I we were always trying to do something different, looking for the problem … We were always trying to find a way to make it better. When we started scheming and working together, we realized we were meant to be together and we ended up, strangely, getting married, and have been together ever since.
My employment was always a necessary evil, I should say. But it’s always been valuable experience, how much I learned from it and how it was a stepping stone in learning what I do now. I’m kind of an administrator at heart. So it’s just part of my personal path.
How often do you watch professional soccer?
JR: I have to admit [it is] just sort of hit-and-miss, here and there. I sort of follow it on the peripheral because my colleagues talk about it a lot. Everybody’s got their favorite club, their favorite players. I do have a favorite; I have players that I like for purely esthetic reasons. I would just say that my focus is on kids and soccer so I tend not to overload myself with watching soccer for aside from that. If I have a chance to see a professional game, I will … I like watching MLS. [I’d] rather go to an MLS game than watch MLS on TV. I’ve been to games in Europe. I’m more about the experience.
During a program or activity, how often do the kids already know about soccer and international players? Is it popular amongst the kids?
JR: It kind of depends on the clientele. We deal with immigrants and refugees and of course it’s already much a part of their culture. We have a significant amount of Mexican immigrants down here and refugees come from dozens of different countries. And they bring their soccer culture with them. It’s very well-known, very popular.
More and more, with the availability of soccer on TV, it’s a lot more watched and widely-known. Still has a ways to go, it doesn’t necessarily compete with football and basketball in many places, but at least people are aware of it. Once you’re made aware of something, they notice it a lot more and you start having conversations … So the conversation becomes more soccer-centric because of the availability of on TV. It’s a big difference; even from five years ago it’s a big difference. The World Cup always helps. Atlanta you [wouldn’t] figure to be a big soccer town, but on the day of the USA-England match this city literally shutdown. You could go to any shopping center with pubs and restaurants and the game was on … It was amazing, the culture is shifting big-time.
A lot of SITS work comes from Atlanta. Do you believe a MLS club in Atlanta would greatly increase SITS’ work?
JR: I’d love it. I don’t know if we’re ready for it, but I believe it’d be a boom here. People would love to have MLS involved here.
Has SITS ever approached the MLS about being featured at one of the league games or about being a sponsor?
JR: Yeah we have, we definitely have. That would be great, to be involved with MLS. Being in an NASL city opposed to a MLS city is a disadvantage. We are absolutely open to working with MLS to grow the soccer city here. It’s definitely been a topic of discussion. We’ve had conversations with folks with different areas. So there are different points of contact through the MLS world that are certainly opened and the conversations are happening, but nothings materialized yet. It hasn’t happened. A perfect storm has not come up yet. We would love to have an atmosphere like Seattle.
What are some complaints you’ve heard about SITS?
JR: I haven’t heard many lately. We’re always trying to keep our ear to the ground so we can answer the critics and make adjustments if we need to.
I would just say this, the first 10 years of our business; we grew very fast and it was very driven by sponsorships and it was a lot more event-based. Which involved what we refer to, affectionately, as the circus model – you blow in, you blow up, you blow out. Two weeks later, after you’re gone, like the circus, no one even knows you were there. And by our own admission, the owner wasn’t really savvy about soccer. She herself wasn’t very savvy about soccer. After years of doing the events, it was considered more of a photo opportunity and the serious soccer people really didn’t consider us credible, even though there were a lot of knowledgeable and passionate soccer people involved in the organization. It was taken us seriously for people entrenched in the soccer world.
But when we took a step back and had a change of leadership in 2000-2001, we were very intentional of being a youth development program and very intentional of using soccer as a vehicle, but doing it in a way that honored the support for the value it provides and doing it well. Not just doing it for the sake of kicking ball, it was for teaching it properly.
Where do you see your own career going from here?
JR: I don’t want to get to a point where I’ve done everything I can possibly do that’s within my own capabilities, but don’t know when it’s time to quit. As long as I’m still adding value to this organization, I’ll remain. I don’t want to remain while taking away the opportunity for someone else to fit into a certain role. Or don’t know when it’s time to gracefully bow-out, like those washed out athletes who don’t know when it’s time to hang up the glove or the boot. I can see myself hanging on for a little while longer. There’s a lot more to be done in youth sport development especially with soccer. I also see the need for people who are knowledge going out and teaching and helping others who are trying to do this work. That’s the future, we’ll see. But for now, I’m ecstatic that we’ve made so much progress and are still kicking despite some serious challenges. Kids are kids. Seeing their enthusiasm and their changes, that’s a great reason to get up every morning.
If you chose another career path, would soccer be involved?
JR: I think I’ll always stay connected to it, whether it’s professionally or [not]. My dream is to someday have a soccer farm, to have a place and a space, and I don’t want to call it an academy. And it wouldn’t be for elite player development, but for soccer and life. Where you would be exposed to lessons both on the field and off the field, and it’d be a chance for kids to see the world in a different world. So someday, I want a soccer farm, so that would be my dream – to spend all my time developing hands-on activities related to self-reliance as well as education, art, the home arts, industry. It sounds crazy, it sound comprehensive, and it sounds unimaginable. But I visualize this place where they can play, they can learn, and where kids can get together and play and learn.
How do you think SITS and organizations like it can help soccer culture grow in America?
JR: I think what we’re able to do is a couple of different things. One is that because we’re passionate about soccer and see the benefits of our involvement with the sport; we in turn want to share that passion. We’re talking about exposing kids to something that we love. The second thing that we can really do contributing to this world, and particularly the soccer world, is we’re exposing kids to the multitude of opportunities within the soccer world. We’re not just trying to tell kids you can be the next professional soccer player or you can play soccer in college. You can be the next soccer coach, or referee, or manager, or [public relations] person, or ticket sales, or groundskeeper, or t-shirt designer, or videographer. There are so many related opportunities in soccer and beyond those in sports and beyond that in media. Just helping kids connect the dots may inspire the next, fill in the blank.