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Lifting Kensington — through soccer

"I know how it is in the community — all the gun violence, drugs," said Nagee Morrison. "These kids can have rough lives at home, but just by being here, we can make a difference."

Julio Reyes, 16, dribbles the ball off his head at the Kensington Soccer Club field at 3rd and Dauphin.
Julio Reyes, 16, dribbles the ball off his head at the Kensington Soccer Club field at 3rd and Dauphin.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

The athletic fields at Third and Dauphin are not lovely, set on patchy grass amid a stark Kensington landscape. But the things that have grown around them are remarkable, a testament to the strength of a community and one man's dogged belief in it.

The fields and the adjacent clubhouse that Philadelphia teacher Jim Hardy rents from a nearby church form the heart of the Kensington Soccer Club. In eight years, the organization has grown from a few volunteers overseeing a handful of pickup games to a community anchor with nearly 1,500 youths served annually in multiple leagues, providing year-round programming, educational activities, even jobs.

"Soccer club" only begins to describe an organization that has won local acclaim and attracted national attention.

"It gives the community something to hold onto," said Yadelies Prieto, a Kensington Soccer staffer. "It gives us pride."

Cookie Sanchez, the pastor of Iglesia del Barrio at Kip and Cambria Streets, sees it this way: "It's a light in the darkness."

How do kids spend their time after school?

In the mid-2000s, Hardy was a community organizer who had an epiphany: He wanted to be a teacher, and he wanted to plant roots in a high-needs section of Philadelphia, living the same experience as his students, joining with his neighbors to lift themselves up.

Hardy zeroed in on Kensington.

He moved there and volunteered for various community groups as an ESL tutor. He got a Temple University education degree, then a permanent job teaching in the Philadelphia School District, at what was then Kensington Culinary High School. The work was meaningful, but Hardy itched to do more for the bright, eager students for whom violence, poverty, and sadness were too often facts of life.

"I went to funerals and thought about how our kids spend their time after school," said Hardy. "Kids need something positive, and if we don't give them that, they'll find something negative."

Hardy tried to start other school clubs. But the open gym time he held in 2010 was a revelation — kids didn't want to stop kicking the soccer ball around. Most had never played the sport, but they wanted to bring their siblings, and they wanted more programming.

"I can never say no to that kind of thing," said Hardy, who grew up playing soccer in Delaware County as the son of Pat Hardy, a teacher, and Dan Hardy, a retired Inquirer reporter. "Once you get a kid hooked on something like that, it's hard to say, 'No, we don't have anything more for you to do in the fall.'"

Hardy thought he might put together a modest soccer program, and at first that's what it was. Youth soccer is enormously popular in the United States, but less so in Philadelphia and other urban areas, where financial and transportation issues make the sport forbidding to many kids.

Before Kensington Soccer Club, "90 percent of our kids couldn't participate," Hardy said. "It was completely inaccessible to them."

Hardy had to sell organized soccer at first, going door to door recruiting players, putting up fliers, pitching the club at community events. But parents eventually warmed to the idea of a free program they could walk to, of a way to keep their kids safe and busy. And students found joy whenever a ball was at their feet.

Eventually, the little league grew to what it is now: operating 12 months a year, for youths 3 to 19, with 40 volunteers, 25 coaches, and a budget of over $120,000, funded through grants and donations.

The soccer club has outdoor leagues, indoor leagues, travel teams, and club teams for boys and girls. There's instruction inside one Philadelphia School District school's gym classes and after-school programs. There's a wellness component. A cadre of teens coach younger children. There are partnerships with the U.S. Soccer Foundation and Street Soccer USA.

The clubhouse, with its hum of activity and walls painted green, is lined with equipment kids can use free — shelves and shelves of donated cleats and shin guards.

"Community Advancement Through Soccer" is the club motto, ingrained in everything Hardy does. Soccer is key, but education is perhaps even more important. Athletes and parents are encouraged to take home the books displayed prominently in the clubhouse. There are college visits, weekly educational activities, and check-ins with players: How was your day? Do you need help in school? What are your grades like?

Anthony Washington, a city Parks and Recreation employee who supervises Casiano Field, where the club often plays, said the club's and Hardy's impact can't be measured.

"I don't think you can say how many kids Jim helps, how many families," said Washington, who has known Hardy since 2010. "The parents call him and say, 'Help me, you're the one he listens to.'"

Hardy is unmarried, has no children. His life is in service to the club; everything revolves around it.

He's a tall, slender 41-year-old with graying hair and a quiet, steady voice. These days his work is less about coaching than about fundraising and planning. But when he is on the field, the younger kids want to be his partner in soccer drills, and the bigger ones flock to him. He asks after their families, makes sure they've had enough water to drink, and compliments them on good plays. Many of his soccer players are not native English speakers, and Hardy slips often into fluent Spanish.

He immerses himself in his players' lives, organizing help for a family fighting an immigration battle, offering rides and advice and help finding jobs.

Hardy puts in at least 40 hours a week, all unpaid, on top of his job teaching Spanish and his role as coach of the Kensington High soccer team. His schedule on a recent Friday was exhausting, but not uncommon — a full day of teaching, then a high school practice, then a dinner meeting to plan KSC activities, then watching a KSC young adult pickup game, checking in with those young people about their lives, and driving some of them home. Later, he would answer emails, finishing just before midnight, with a full Saturday planned, too.

This year, Hardy was recognized by Mayor Kenney as the city Parks and Recreation Sports Volunteer of the Year. He's won recognition from the Philadelphia Union, and, perhaps most important to him, he is someone everyone in the community knows and respects, not as an outsider foisting a do-good program on them, but a neighbor partnering with them to advance together.

"I don't really care about anything else," Hardy said of the soccer club. "This lifts me up, keeps me going — the relationships with the kids, the coaches, the parents. I made a promise to myself to put in everything that I can — every minute that I have, every dollar that I can."

Soccer changed everything

Nagee Morrison was sitting in math class at Kensington Health Sciences Academy in 2011 when Hardy entered, talking up the Kensington Soccer Club.

Morrison, a freshman at the time, had only played basketball, but he was willing to try it.

Soccer changed Morrison's life.

Things were difficult at home, but the sport gave him purpose, recognition, and a job coaching. He got into shape. He introduced his little sisters to the game. Hardy and the other KSC volunteers checked up on his schoolwork, and he would do homework on the clubhouse computers; he knew he couldn't play unless his grades were decent.

Now 21, Morrison is taking classes at Community College of Philadelphia, working as a climate staffer for the School District, and coaching the KSC U11 (under-11) girls' team. He plays soccer in an adult league and is the kind of person who would walk to practice if he didn't have money for the bus.

"I know how it is in the community — all the gun violence, drugs," Morrison said. "These kids can have rough lives at home, but just by being here, we can make a difference."

Kensington is the epicenter of the opioid crisis, and the soccer club's teams use fields that often have to be swept for needles before children begin playing. The median household income of the neighborhood surrounding the soccer club is $18,119.

But that tells only part of the story.

Prieto, the KSC staffer, thinks about the people who don't fall victim to violence or drugs because of the club. She thinks about the way everyone knows Hardy and the coaches.

“Kids look up to us, and it gives parents a safe place to send their kids,” said Prieto, 24. “People from the block come up and say to us, ‘When’s soccer going to start?’”