New York City FC’s launch began inextricably linked to community works in the city. The team was officially announced, four years ago, from a rooftop soccer field at the Lexington Academy in East Harlem.
Symbolically, too, that field was built by now-sister team Manchester City — a club founded by a pair of church wardens in 1880 largely for humanitarian purposes — during their summer tour of the United States in 2010.
That mission has continued at NYCFC, culminating in the announcement on Wednesday that the team’s been nominated by ESPN for the network’s Sports Humanitarian Team of the Year award.
“In short, it’s in our DNA, it’s what we do,” says Paul Jeffries, NYCFC’s Director of Community Development. “It will always be at the heart of our football club — giving back to the community.”
Under the “City in the Community” umbrella, NYCFC have started numerous projects. In fact, it’s proven a particular passion project for team star David Villa, who’s quickly become the willing and happy face of NYC outreach. “I have been at NYCFC from the start, so I have seen that community is at the center of everything we do as a club. I am proud of that,” he says.
One of the specific projects of which they are proudest is Saturday Night Lights, a program run in conjunction with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.
“We offer soccer at high-crime times, when kids have nothing to do, at an age — from 12-18 — where in East Harlem it’s easier to join a gang than a team,” Jeffries says.
The project began, initially, as an after-school program at elementary schools, but has morphed into additional chances to help at-risk youth.
“From that, we also used additional funding to provide academic support and mentoring, with the theory of change being, if kids are on track to graduate high school, they are less likely to be involved in criminal activity,” Jeffries says.
Some of the initial kids who participated now volunteer in the same programs.
“There’s also a youth leadership council that has developed from this to help us inform our decisions of issues happening in their community,” Jeffries adds. “They’re also getting some leadership development in our offices through policy practice and advocacy of issues affecting them.”
Two who started in the program are currently in Manchester for a global youth summit, while three others are working NYCFC matchdays at Yankee Stadium with the club’s fan relationship management team.
Though it started in 2014 with just 12 kids in a gym, the program has now mushroomed to 350 kids, with both boys and girls’ teams. They get also get tutored in NYCFC’s Manhattan offices, and attend resume-writing workshops in a partnership with Bloomberg.
There have been success stories, perhaps none greater than one 14-year-old girl, who was showing up to school and NYCFC’s classes drunk.
“Our social worker had intervened and facilitated a meeting with the mother and the young lady and it turned out that she came out in that conversation that she was gay,” Jeffries says. “It released all this emotion and discussion and social support. She’s now graduating high school and her grades are going from a 60 to the mid-80s.”
That girl, and others in the program from the LGBTQ community, will be celebrated by NYCFC before Saturday’s home game the Seattle Sounders (1 pm ET, ESPN and ESPN Deportes in US, MLS LIVE in Canada) as part of the club’s first-ever Pride Day at Yankee Stadium.
City in the Community has proved especially important to team star David Villa, so much so his recent contract extension was announced at P.S. 49, where the NYCFC captain took questions from students from the CITC program.
“I am also proud to be a part of a club that uses soccer to make a difference and wants to make our NYC home even better,” Villa says. “I am a dad myself, so I enjoy working with the CITC NY schools projects where the kids can play and use soccer to teach healthy habits.”
And remember the Lexington Academy, where NYCFC was launched? It has received the NYC Department of Education Platinum Award for Excellence in School Wellness for a third consecutive year.
“It’s really exciting to see how we can bring that to other communities,” Jeffries says. “Five years from now we might have 50 Lexington Academies, which are getting these amazing outcomes.”