They were concerned about kids and gang violence in southeast Colorado Springs, and frustrated by two years of fruitless problem-solving with city stakeholders. So in 2014, Sarah Sherwin and David Pratt did what people have done for centuries when things look bleak: They rolled out a soccer ball.
The Southeast Springs Soccer Initiative (SeSSI), they announced in fliers, would welcome all local kids to weekly kick-arounds at two city parks. No registration would be required, no experience necessary. And everything would be free.
Now, Sherwin and Pratt know something about intervention: She coordinates local alternatives to detention initiatives for the state, and he spent nearly 24 years as an officer with the Colorado Springs Police Department before joining Falcon School District 49’s security team last summer. They understand how to bring people together, and they grasp the nuances of crime data. But put up against the gangs, SeSSI looked about as imposing as a barefoot kid toeing a ball of banana leaves and twine.
“Soccer is simple,” Sherwin acknowledges. “But the outcomes that we’re seeing aren’t simple.”
First, and most important: Kids have come. Those informal gatherings at Deerfield Hills and Soaring Eagles parks attracted 700 of them, ages 2 to 15, in SeSSI’s inaugural year. Organizers expanded to four parks the next summer and then six in 2016. Among kick-arounds and SeSSI’s first-ever weeklong camps, total participation this past summer topped 2,000 participants.
Then there are the violence numbers. Police report that between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016, the 80910 ZIP code (a triangle formed primarily by East Pikes Peak Avenue, South Academy Boulevard and East Las Vegas Street) saw a 27-percent decrease in arrests of violent juvenile offenders. Directly to the east, in 80916, the drop hit 39 percent. And in each quarter-mile radius surrounding the SeSSI sites of Deerfield Hills, Soaring Eagles, Van Diest and Prairie Grass parks, it was a cumulative 63 percent decrease.
These statistics come from Elisabeth Almond with the Penrose-St. Francis Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, a leading-edge foundation effort that supports SeSSI. Almond is quick to point out that correlation isn’t necessarily causation. But plenty of research suggests that safe public spaces help curb violence. And as SeSSI director Matt Stelmaszek puts it, “When we come around, everyone can come play at that park.”
“The first night we were at Deerfield Hills,” remembers SeSSI co-chair Pratt, “there was a group of Bloods gang members watching us. And I’m like, ‘This is where we need to be.’ The next week, they weren’t there on that night.”
As volunteers moved from park to park with balls, nets, water, sunscreen and snacks, they started seeing the same kids in multiple places. These were boys and girls who were really getting into soccer and who, outside of SeSSI’s summer season, might be inclined to try out for a school team.
Problem is, those teams can’t accept everyone. Sherwin has heard of 75 kids vying for 20 spots at some middle schools. In other parts of the city, club soccer might provide an alternative. But in the southeast, there were no clubs—not enough families there could pay annual fees of $1,000 or more for competitive level teams.
So last summer, SeSSI enlisted the support of Rush Soccer, the world’s largest youth soccer club. The arrangement, in oversimplified terms: Rush generously covers all costs for SeSSI kids, and in return sees the game (and its own talent pool) grow. This summer, there were five club teams of SeSSI alumni, including a girls team. “There’s a real pride in the club that they’re representing,” Sherwin says. “And that replaces the appeal of the gangs.”
Another antidote to youth violence is respect between citizens and law enforcement. Sand Creek Division Cmdr. Scott Whittington says the CSPD has a “pretty decent” relationship with locals, thanks to outreach efforts dating back nearly a decade. But especially given growing tension between police and minority communities, there’s still reason—and room—for improvement.
“As we got on the ground with families, we heard story after story about the hostility toward law enforcement in the area,” Sherwin says. “We heard some 2-year-olds saying, ‘I’m scared of police officers. Is that a police officer over there?’ ”
During the initiative’s first year, Pratt (who was then still on the force) played in street clothes. Then came SeSSI’s end-of-season barbecue, to which he went directly from working security at a football game. Sherwin says when Pratt pulled up to the barbecue in his cruiser, in uniform, people were incredulous. “I remember a dad saying, ‘I hate cops. But I love Coach Dave.’ ”
Today, CSPD officers often join kick-arounds in their blues. El Paso County Sheriff’s Office deputies do the same at Evans Elementary in Falcon, the first SeSSI park in their jurisdiction.
Some officers also keep a donated soccer ball in their cruisers, so they can kick with neighborhood kids between calls. Whittington personally OK’d the idea, and has already been rewarded with positive feedback from his officers. “They’ve given me anecdotes of parents and people coming out and saying, ‘Hey, we never see cops around here unless there’s something going on. We appreciate that.’ ”
Occasionally, bringing out a ball will lead to something even more profound.
“We actually had law enforcement report to us that they were trying to interview a young sex assault victim, and they couldn’t get her to talk,” Sherwin says. “And then they gave her a ball … and they kicked in the hallway together, and she told the story of what happened.”
SeSSI’s profile is growing—and not just because this year’s soccer camps (funded by Penrose-St. Francis Hospital outside of the Violence Prevention grant) put more kids on the field more often.
Stelmaszek and Pratt regularly spread the news about SeSSI to local groups. In July, Sherwin spoke about the initiative for two minutes at Rush Soccer’s annual national festival; when she was done, five coaches approached her for further details. She has turned her co-chair role over to 4th Judicial District Chief District Attorney Jeff Lindsey, so she can work on securing funding beyond Penrose-St. Francis’ three-year grant.
“Is it our vision that this will spread nationwide?” Sherwin says. “Absolutely.”
Meanwhile, Rush Pikes Peak is working with a local developer on a lease-to-own agreement for a planned 10-acre, all-grass, east-side soccer complex on Resnik Drive, just a quarter-mile from SeSSI’s service area. Bolstered in part by grant funding made accessible to SeSSI, the agreement will allow the complex to serve as a base for all SeSSI club teams and other local Rush teams.
Still, those deceptively simple kick-arounds at neighborhood parks will remain the heart of the initiative.
At the beginning of one Monday night at Evans Elementary, Justin Islas walked over from his house and peppered Pratt with questions. Then he shook Pratt’s hand firmly, and left for a while. Back at the field later on, as he watched his 9-year-old son, Dominic, help Pratt pack away the night’s equipment, he explained that he’d been on a fact-finding mission.
“I actually went home and my wife was like, ‘Well, what’s up? What’s going on?’ ” he says. “And I was like, ‘It’s OK. It’s a free thing; it’s community soccer. They’re trying to bring everybody together.’ ”
SeSSI is always looking for volunteer coaches and captains, and gladly accepts donated soccer balls, cleats, snacks, water bottles and more. For more information: sessi.org