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  • Sophia Goethals, SWB

SWB Oakland’s Elementary School League Creates Opportunities for Youth Leadership

The Elementary School League's youth leadership team.

This past spring, our Soccer Without Borders (SWB) Oakland hub, in collaboration with Oakland Unified School District, launched our very first Elementary School League for newcomer youth. The league took place over the course of 10 weekends and served over 250 participants ranging from kindergarten through fifth grade.

Although designed primarily to provide elementary-aged newcomer youth with a space to build community and an introduction to the game of soccer, one of the league’s most successful and salient results were the opportunities it provided to SWB Oakland’s emerging youth leaders, those who were hired and trained to support the program. Not only were these young people provided with valuable work experience, they were also given the chance to learn a multitude of real-life leadership skills that are sure to benefit them for a lifetime.

During the Elementary School League, SWB Oakland employed 17 youth leaders as paid interns, coaches, field leads, and more. Additionally, in the lead up to the league, these youth leaders received 20 hours of training covering leadership styles and strengths, sports-based youth development best practices, safeguarding measures, techniques for leading activities, and more.

One of those youth leaders was Sultan, an 18 year old SWB participant originally from Afghanistan. Sultan not only coached one of the league teams, but he recruited more than a dozen players from the Afghan community – many of whom had only recently arrived in the United States – to join the league.

“On one of the last days, during the downtime between morning and afternoon sessions,” recalled Program Coordinator Patrick Robinson, “I looked up during my lunch break to notice the youth leaders, each of their own accord, leading and entertaining a small group of participants in various activities. I felt at that moment like my job was done…they were now displaying the agency to lead groups even when they were between programming sessions.”

One SWB focus area is providing pathways for youth to develop leadership skills — skills that can be carried on throughout the course of their lives at school, work, and in their communities. According to research by the Brookings Institute, engagement in youth employment programs predicts higher job quality and income by age 23. Recognizing the multifaceted benefits of creating programs for youth employment and professional development, SWB Oakland included internships for older SWB participants within the design of the Elementary League from the start.

“Many of these youth leaders are Soccer Without Borders participants themselves [on high school teams], and therefore already had a strong foundation of SWB’s culture and values,” says Patrick. “They came to us with a strong understanding of inclusion, positive youth development through sport, and the SWB curriculum. This helped them transition seamlessly into leadership roles.”

Throughout the course of the program, the youth leaders grew in self-confidence, initiative, and agency. They formed positive relationships with the elementary school participants, acting as key role models who they could relate to and see themselves becoming. Just as importantly, youth leaders also forged bonds with each other, making new friendships across genders and programs while strengthening the web of connections at SWB.

“I learned a lot of things – one is to always try everything, [because] we never know what is going to happen if we don’t try,” said Jenny, a youth leader. “Now I am not that scared to have another job.”

The first season of the league showed promising results among both youth participants and youth leaders, including:

  • 100% of youth leaders surveyed reported feeling more confident in themselves

  • 97% of K-2 grade participants surveyed reported learning something new

  • 94% of K-2 grade participants surveyed reported that their coaches helped them

  • 90% of 3-5th grade participants surveyed agreed or strongly agreed they felt included as a part of a team, and 0% disagreed

  • 90% of youth leaders surveyed reported a newfound understanding about how children learn

  • 85% of youth leaders surveyed reported feeling more confident while leading groups

“Out of my time playing a variety of sports like volleyball, soccer, and football, I notice that people who play sports are prone to be in a more positive mood after a practice,” said youth leader Veronica. “Soccer Without Borders encourages people from all different ages to leave all the negatives behind when playing soccer.”

SWB Oakland's inaugural Elementary School League was made possible with the support of the Oakland Unified School District’s Expanded Learning Program. We’d like to extend a huge thank you to our friends and partners at the Oakland Unified School District and Eat.Learn.Play., as well as to the league’s organizers, youth leaders, participants, and more. Your hard work, dedication, and teamwork was crucial in making the Elementary School League a success!


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