Streets to Station
Nonprofits brings soccer to Five Points MARTA Station
March 20, 2017
Sanjay Patel grew up in Warwick, England, and never needed to pay to play a game of soccer.
“There was never a question of [if] a kid couldn’t play because of his financial means, ethnic background, family background,” Patel said. “Globally, soccer’s free. It doesn’t cost anything.”
The United States was different. When Patel moved to Candler Park in 2010, he was shocked to find he needed to pay local leagues money to play or reserve field space at local parks for pick-up games.
He was also surprised to watch parents shell out thousands of dollars for their kids to play on competitive youth teams.
“The game only requires a ball,” Patel said.
Patel used to watch professional soccer matches with the CEO of Soccer in the Streets and began volunteering with the organization in 2010. Patel soon discovered a passion for volunteering with Soccer in the Streets and joined its board the following year.
Soccer in the Streets started in 1989 as a non-profit that aims to “empower underserved youth through sports-based training, character development, mentoring and employability programs.” Today, they bring soccer programs to poorer areas of Atlanta.
Two years later, Patel was on vacation visiting his English family. One day in south London, he saw children in soccer gear run out of a train station and straight across the street to a complex of small soccer fields.
Back in Atlanta, Patel lived near the Candler Park MARTA station and rode the train often. He couldn’t help but notice the amount of spaces going unused in many of MARTA’s parking lots.
“Straight away the first thing I thought of was, ‘Why can’t we build mini-fields at MARTA stations?’” Patel said.
Amanda Rhein, Director of Development and Real Estate at MARTA, estimates that half of the 25,000 parking spaces at MARTA parking lots go unused on a regular basis.
Patel went to MARTA with a vision of soccer fields in stations all around the city. On July 20, 2016, MARTA received a letter from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) saying that the space could be repurposed to create Station Soccer. Soccer in the Streets then signed a license agreement with MARTA, secured project funding from the Atlanta United Foundation and began construction on Five Points Station Soccer.
A previously-built amphitheater on the upper deck of the Five Points Station meant that construction took less than two weeks to complete.
On Oct. 27, 2016, Station Soccer opened. Arthur Blank and Darren Eales, respectively the owner and president of Atlanta United, were among those present to witness the opening of the first soccer field in a transit station anywhere in the world.
The Station Soccer field measures 99 by 66 feet and is made for five people to play on each team. While it is much smaller than a standard full-size soccer field that is made for 11 players on each team, it looks like any other 5v5 field made of high quality artificial turf. As Jose Devarez, Soccer in the Streets Director of Communications, said, “I can basically put a 5v5 field anywhere, but what’s going to differentiate this [field] from any other?”
For Devarez, location and atmosphere are part of what make Station Soccer unique. Situated in the heart of Atlanta, the field takes on an urban atmosphere for both players and spectators.
“When you actually shoot and score, and you hear those chains crackling, it’s a different taste, a different atmosphere, a different feel,” Devarez said. “All of the sudden you see people passing by going into the station looking at you, and you hear a train sounding the horn. It’s so different.”
Concrete bleachers lie off to one side of the field, while the MARTA plaza opens up beyond a fence on the other side. Among the grey jungle of downtown buildings peeps a sea of green, the sound of laces hitting the balls echoing across the buildings.
“It has a different flavor than any field I’ve ever been to,” Devarez said.
Soccer in the Streets isn’t merely about giving impoverished children access to “the beautiful game”; it’s also about helping those in need gain crucial life skills, according to Shell Ramirez, Director of Soccer in the Streets’ LifeWorks program. LifeWorks is focused on using soccer “as a tool for social change to empower soccer players in creating employability and a higher education rate,” Ramirez said.
Each month, Ramirez works with 4,000 children as part of the LifeWorks program. One of these children, Ler, loved the soccer community and wanted to be a part of it, but his options were limited. Through the LifeWorks program, Ler earned his credentials and now referees youth soccer games on the weekends. Most important to Ramirez, he’s had the opportunity to become a part of the soccer community.
“He’s such a success story that comes from a little bit of nurturing and a little bit of kindness,” Ramirez said.
Soccer in the Streets hopes to replicate the success it’s had with Ler and many others at Station Soccer. Ramirez espires that Station Soccer’s newest proposed addition, a Tiny House LifeWorks Center, will expand Soccer in the Streets’ outreach.
“We’d like to be able to offer programming there so we can have increased offers of employability, Ramirez said. “The space would just help us mature and grow and foster new kids in different areas.”
Despite its name, a Tiny House LifeWorks Center would provide ample space for an education-based operation focused on tutoring and mentoring, Devarez said.
Similar to how Soccer in the Streets went to the Atlanta United Foundation for the Station Soccer funding, the nonprofit is talking to Microsoft about partnerships revolving around technology and employability, both at the proposed LifeWorks Center and at Microsoft’s Ga. headquarters. Devarez hopes that eventually they will be able to send students to Microsoft’s Ga. headquarters for potential technology sessions and internships.
Partnerships with large corporations help Soccer in the Streets achieve its mission of free access for all children.
“Everything we do there for kids is free,” Ramirez said. “We’ve created a space and we’re continuing to try to create that cycle where everybody has an opportunity to play.”
And play they have. In Station Soccer’s four months of existence, Devarez estimates that 1,500 people have headed to the station for pick-up games or league matches.
Soccer in the Streets opened its first adult leagues at Station Soccer in January as a way to reach out to adults more and increase their fundraising.
“The rationale is that adults play for a donation fee and that donation fee is funding all of the youth programs,” Devarez said. “It allows us to be sustainable and get more kids involved for free at Station Soccer.”
In the same way that Station Soccer promotes Soccer in the Streets’ visibility, it’s also increased the nonprofit’s funding. Station Soccer is the first field Soccer in the Streets has owned, and they plan on using it for their major fundraising events. Last year, Soccer in the Streets held their Black Tie Soccer Game at Station Soccer four days after it opened, and raised $150,000, the most ever.
Overall, Patel sees Five Points Station Soccer as a dream come true.
“You’re getting youth to play, you’re getting adults to play, you’re bringing community together, you’re giving free soccer to communities where the [existing] system is a pay-to-play system, so it’s big on social impact,” Patel said. “It’s hard to find a negative.”
While Soccer in the Streets plans to expand the Five Points Station Soccer operation, Patel already has his eyes set on a larger type of expansion.
“The vision’s not realized,” he said. “I went to MARTA with the vision of 10 stations. Imagine a Decatur FC versus College Park United. I called it, ‘The League of Stations.’”
In future versions of Station Soccer, Patel wants to see a key change to the process that didn’t happen at Five Points.
He envisions an expansion of the Station Soccer program where the community around the station has the ability to give input on the looks of their soccer field.
“Not everyone loves soccer,” Patel said. “Some people are drawn to art, and those folks could be a part of making that field look like their own community. We want to localize it as much as possible.”
While this dream sounds far off, Ramirez remembers when the current Soccer Station was only a similarly far-fetched idea.
“We’re hoping that we can make it happen, but we dreamed to make the station happen and it happened, so … we like to dream,” Ramirez said.
For Patel, the future holds Breeze cards, 5 v 5 fields and a greater accessibility to the beautiful game.
“Someone asked me the other day, ‘When will you be happy about this?’” Patel said. “It won’t be until I’m on the train and see kids on the train going from one station or community to another station or community to play that the dream’s realized.”
Feature image courtesy of Jose Devarez, Soccer in the Streets
Contact the writer (Christopher Rosselot) at [email protected]
A previous version of this story stated that Gerardo Martino, coach of Atlanta United, was present when Station Soccer opened. Darren Eales, president of Atlanta United, was actually present.