Two photos side by side show a little girl kicking a soccer ball in a park field and a little boy kicking a soccer ball in a field in front of some houses.

Photography By Guilherme Vogt

Sports programs give underserved kids a chance to play and grow

These organizations use the power of sport to break down barriers and teach important life skills

Every Friday, 10-year-old Tlatoani and Felix Cuevas wait to hear if their names have been chosen. As two of the approximately 150 participants in Toronto-based Nutmeg Soccer, a free soccer-slash-educational program for priority neighbourhoods, the boys know not everyone gets to play every Friday—there are just too many kids vying for a spot on the field. But if they are two of the 25 to 30 selected, it’s a sweet end to the week.

“Soccer is my favourite sport,” says Tlatoani. “When it was my first time at Nutmeg, I didn’t know lots about soccer. But they taught me and I got better and better.”

Nutmeg (named after a soccer move in which the ball is kicked through an opponent’s legs) isn’t just about teaching kids to score goals, it’s about using soccer as a tool to teach physical literacy, says cofounder Javier Diaz. “We’re trying to help children understand why it’s important to do sports,” he says. “In the population we serve, parents often have more than one job, so the kids don’t get enough physical exercise and don’t have access to recreational activities.”

Seven years ago, when the organization launched, it was geared only to adults, especially new Canadians. But three years ago, Nutmeg shifted the focus to kids’ soccer programming in hopes of having a long-term impact on communities. “In Nutmeg, you learn about soccer, but you also learn other things too, like safety,” says Tlatoani. Local speakers come to soccer sessions and give talks to the children about various aspects of life—one time a comic book illustrator conducted an anti-bullying session.

There’s also a high coach-to-child ratio (roughly four children per coach), which allows coaches more opportunity to mentor their pint-sized players. “When they come to Nutmeg, they come to not just play soccer, but to be with their friends and to learn and grow,” Diaz says.

Nutmeg isn’t alone in connecting kids to sports. While the GTA is thick with heftily priced kids’ sports programs available to families, there are plenty of initiatives offering more accessible sports with a side helping of life skills.

(Photography By Guilherme Vogt)

A group of kids running around a blue track with condo buildings in the background.

Aspire 4 Higher

Founded in 2013, this basketball program helps kids succeed through sport, whatever the barriers. Noting the lack of accessible basketball programs in Peel region, Aspire works to keep programs affordable, inclusive and even subsidized—of the 2,500 kids it has mentored so far, approximately a fifth have been subsidized.

Lane 6

This one-on-one mentorship program for children aged seven to 18 years old is designed to inspire at-risk youth to develop their running skills. Partners in the program are Nike, Canadian Running magazine and Toronto Community Housing.

Their Opportunity

This funding body helps low-income families who otherwise couldn’t enroll their kids in local sports programs. The financial leg-up comes with a small caveat: after three months of sports funding, children are required to give back to their communities as part of the organization’s “pay if forward” mandate.

Urban Squash Toronto

Working with youth primarily in Toronto’s Jane/Finch area, this charitable organization wants to improve both athletic and academic achievement for participating kids. Kids are enrolled in an intensive after-school sports and education program designed to help them improve their grades, graduate from high school, adopt a healthy lifestyle and become active participants in their communities.

York Region Soccer Association’s Special Needs Soccer Camp

This camp offers access to the highly physical sport of soccer and is open to kids six to 15 with intellectual or physical disabilities. One-on-one youth mentors are partnered up with participants who play free of charge. 

(Photography Courtesy of Canadian Running Magazine/ Ruby Photo Studio)

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