A Wallingford native and Penn State soccer alum, Brent Jacquette has been the head coach of the Widener University Men’s Soccer team for eight years. During his time with the Pride, Jacquette helped secure a Soccer for Success Grant for Chester Upland, the school district where Widener is based. He sat down with Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer to discuss Soccer for Success, which aims to serve as a national model for youth after-school programming through the use of soccer as a catalyst to promote nutrition education, mentorship, physical activity, and family engagement within educationally and/or economically distressed communities. Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer will host a fundraiser on Thursday, April 6 to benefit Chester Upland Soccer for Success, the JT Dorsey Foundation and TOPSoccer. You can purchase tickets and read more information here.
How did you get started with Chester Upland Soccer for Success?
I’ve been the men’s soccer coach for eight years. About five and a half years ago, (we) caught wind of the Soccer for Success grant. So our university convened with a group of people in the area: Crozer, the Union, about 15 different organizations at the time. I was just part of the committee. We got the grant and didn’t really have the infrastructure to run it. So we had a couple meetings and a few people said we’ll hire somebody fulltime to do it and obviously didn’t have the money to do so. So after a couple meetings, it fell in my lap, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Was it new to you? Had you done any other similar programs in the past?
On a much smaller scale. The timing was kind of ironic because this all occurred…less than 12 months prior we had done a really small scale of this at one of our current sites. It had nothing to do with health and wellness. It was strictly a physical activity, gym-class type of thing with soccer. I had also done the same a number of years prior when I first started here at Widener at another school that didn’t have gym class, no Phys. Ed. So we had done a couple small scale soccer programs. And then with the Will Trippley Foundation here, who’s done camps and things over the years, we’ve always played a part in that. So there were there some small scale, more one off opportunities, nothing to this scale, nothing really with the health and wellness.
Are there other Widener teams that get involved with similar programs, or was this an initiative of the soccer program?
This is definitely the largest scale program in our department. University-wide, we do a lot of civic engagement. It’s something we hang our hats on. Within the athletic department we do a lot of different things. There are a number of other, different non-profit type of organizations that we support in various ways. But (Soccer for Success) is probably the largest scale undertaking as it pertains to civic engagement, that’s strategically aligned for 12 months with measurable outcomes, things like that, that our university has. It just so happens that I was on the committee.
What was it like in the beginning? Was the community fully embracive? Was soccer even something on their mind?
It was interesting, because many of the people that were on our committee and were supposed to be alongside of us said it was not going to work. Even though there’s an MLS team here, the community doesn’t care about soccer. So we were fairly strategic in how we wanted to operate that we decided we would be solely school based. So as soon as the school bell rang, the students were all running to our program instead of going to parks or things like that where parents would have to worry about getting them there. So we were strategic in that with the program being kindergarten through eighth grade, we started with some older age students in the first year and didn’t have a lot of success. They were registering for the wrong reasons. It was a better alternative than academic work. Their parents wanted them to do it. They weren’t bought into it. So we pretty quickly pivoted to focus on kindergarten to third grade, grew gradually to K to five, and now we’re pretty much top to bottom K to eight. We’re going to launch a middle school league next spring that will include all the middle school programs, all five throughout the community. Within five years, we’re working with the school district to try and have a high school team. So we’ve been able to grow fairly organically, where the kids that are in Kindergarten to third grade don’t know any different that this is a basketball town and that’s what everything drives.
How did you change that attitude?
I think just showing that the game can be fun. Again, Kindergarten, third grade, fifth grade, it’s an enjoyable game. I think the big thing for us is the continuity that a lot of programs throughout this community have come and gone. We’ve had a bit of staying power to make sure that we’re coming back. And the mentorship component has been beneficial. The schools have bought into it. Many of the parents have started to really buy into it, because they see the coach mentors we have are there on a regular basis. That three days a week, that person is there for their child. Everybody—parents, schools, the university, businesses in this community—everyone says we want to do better by the youth in Chester Upland. Everyone believes it; there just aren’t a lot of people doing it. So our simple program has the ability to actually be a constant in these kids’ lives.
What are some of your bigger events throughout the year that have been real successes?
Our play day is our annual event that is the largest scale, probably our most enjoyable event, because it’s the one day we focus on competition whereas other days are not. Some of the other signature events that we’ve been able to do are the sweet potato dinner at Stetser (Elementary School) where over the years we’ve built over 20 raised-bed gardens along with our participants, coaches, people from the school. Then every year in the fall, students harvest sweet potatoes from those gardens. I believe the count was about 150 they were able to harvest this past year. Aramark, who does our food services on campus, takes in those sweet potatoes and makes a meal based around sweet potatoes so shepherd’s pie, sweet potato cookies, salad, things that are all healthy. We have a night where we invite all of the parents in to witness their children playing in the program, the enjoyment they’re having, the physical activity component. Then after that, we have a sit down meal so we can make it somewhat of a farm to table idea.
We recently partnered with the public school district on a couple neat events that are built around parent engagement. That’s really the next piece. We’re doing a good job with the soccer piece. I think the mentorship, we’re doing a pretty good job in terms of continuity in the children’s lives. The next piece is really getting the message into the homes, because as much as we’re trying to educate the children about healthy eating, things of that nature, we need the parents to buy into that to make sure the food is accessible for the youth.
How involved are your college players?
We don’t really do anything officially in the fall, because we’re in season. I have some of them help behind the scenes. Right now, we have probably have seven or eight as coach mentors. It’s a good opportunity. I’d just as soon have all of them, but with our team being a lot of engineers, the lab time doesn’t allow for that.
We have a good amount of our players, Swarthmore College has been a good partner as well, Brendan Grady, our program director, coaches there as well. So he’s been able to get some of their players involved on a daily basis. They also support us on the play day.
How have they’ve embraced it, the kids who do come out to support the program?
It’s been great. One of the things I’m most proud of is that we’ve only, in our five years and probably over 300 coach mentors we’ve had, we’ve only had one person quit. They felt it wasn’t a good opportunity for them. Everyone else including college students, it’s been a great experience. The fact that it’s grown through word of mouth has been important for us, because it allows us to attract better quality, more committed coach mentors that we know are there for the right reasons. We’ve been really fortunate.
What do you think is the most important characteristic to have to work with these kids?
I think you need to be flexible, because there are days where it’s going to be challenging. I say all the time to anybody who’s getting involved that it’s not necessarily a soccer program, so don’t go in thinking about that. You’re going to walk away saying I can’t do this again, I’m not going to go back, because it was just a challenge. But at the end of the day, they’re kids and they don’t know any better. They need that presence. Flexibility is an important trait and dedication is the other. When someone gets involved, they need to understand the importance of what they’re doing for that child. If they aren’t attending every day, especially after a while when some of those barriers are broken down and that child is expecting that constant to be there and all of sudden that coach isn’t there, that really can be harmful. Make sure you know what you’re getting into. Be dedicated, be flexible. And at the end of the day, have energy. Sometimes you have to fake it and get on with it. If you go in with energy, you’re going to pick the level up. I think that’s a trend anywhere in soccer, but especially residents in this community.
What things would you like to do down the line if you did have the resources?
I think the parent engagement piece is really uncharted territory. Many of the suburban organizations don’t need that, because the parents are there and when you need something, you can get them on the phone, you can send an email. That presence does not exist in this community. So having the resources internally to be able to better connect with the families, even if that’s visiting them at homes, and finding out what challenges are they facing. What’s most important to them? What can we offer beyond a safe place for their kids to play as well as the health and wellness components? Is food access the biggest thing for them? Is it the need for child care? Is it not knowing where to go when they need medical treatment that isn’t accessible?
We’ve been fortunate to grow. We’ve had over 1500 participants in four and half years. We’ll have 550 in this academic year alone. We’re in every single school. We’re in the Boys and Girls Club. We just partnered with the Chester Housing Authority. So I think we have a pretty wide network to disseminate information. What we do with that information isn’t always the best, because we don’t have that infrastructure. I don’t know if we need to grow by participation. I think for a community of this size, we’re probably touching all of those who would be most interested in the program, because it is a basketball town, it is a football town. I think the number that we have is a good, manageable number. But I think we can do a better job with each of them and that starts in the home.
Have you had players who have stuck with the sport or who have gone on to play for local clubs?
We have. We have two young men in particular right now at Stetser Elementary who are playing with Nether United, who are doing extremely well, both great young men, both fantastic in the classroom. It’ll be exciting to see. We’re still in our infancy especially starting K-3, that at most, we’ll have students in the middle school age group. I’ll be excited to see how the middle school league goes next year, because we will have a few students who would have started as third graders that are now in middle school that are now becoming full blown soccer players. Who knows what will happen in the future with the high school team? But there have been a lot of positives that have come from it, both in soccer accomplishments and things we just hear about turning around academic performance as well.