Soccer Is the Pitch

Story published in Clarknews, Winter 2009. By Tammy Griffin-Kumpey M.S.P.C. '06 | Photos by Edd Cote

Darius Shirzadi co-founded an organization that uses a passion for soccer to promote educational opportunity and help at-risk kids excel in school.

By day, Darius Shirzadi '94 is a mild-mannered business and product manager for a coated fabrics manufacturer. At night, he helps Providence, R.I. area citizens fight illiteracy, school delinquency, adolescent crime and obesity. Shirzadi doesn't wear a cape and he can't leap tall buildings (at least not physically): He inspires kids who are struggling in school to hit the books, and a soccer ball is his catalyst of choice.

Shirzadi co-founded Project GOAL (Greater Opportunity for Athletes to Learn), a nonprofit that combines the benefits of academic achievement with the motivation and self-discipline of sports. Helping to create both educational and athletic opportunities for inner-city youth, GOAL is comprised of education, business and sports professionals whose mission is to facilitate the development of Rhode Island's disadvantaged youth through after-school tutoring and soccer-related programs. In a nurturing and safe after-school environment, kids in the program receive academic tutoring, nutritional information and lots of exercise.

After graduating from Clark where he played soccer for the men's varsity team, Shirzadi was hired to manage the day-to-day operations for the Rhode Island Stingrays, a professional minor league soccer team. To promote the club, he started a summer soccer camp for kids. Over the years, Shirzadi says he would hear stories veiled in compliments about the program from the parents of the kids who attended the camps: My kid loves soccer; he's just not into school.

"It gave us the idea for Project GOAL. We could use soccer as leverage to get the kids to do school work, stay out of gangs and live a healthy lifestyle. Soccer would be the hook," says Shirzadi.

Shirzadi founded the program in 2004 along with Stingray's captain Javier Centeno and business owner Peter Whealton. GOAL is currently open to sixth, seventh and eighth grade children from Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls and provided at no charge to participants. The students are selected for their passion for soccer and academic potential, and are encouraged to "earn" time on the field by exhibiting good schoolwork habits.

A common language

Shirzadi explains that soccer occupies an important component in the lives of GOAL's targeted groups—many of the kids they serve have come to the United States from Latin America, Cape Verde and Africa. For the kids it serves, soccer is an important link to their cultural roots, so it works nicely as a lure to enlist the students' willing participation in the program. While many are struggling with language barriers, soccer speaks a language that they all understand.

The enthusiasm for the program is apparent as the participants line up to update Shirzadi on how they are doing in school. Some have good news to report, while others do not, but that's all part of the process. The kids need to be committed to the program, he points out. "We don't let them get away with a lot, and I think that's one reason why the program is so successful. We don't mess around, we're structured, there are rules that they're expected to operate within."

GOAL students work with professional educators to improve their study skills and habits with emphasis on strengthening weak areas of their schoolwork. They also have the opportunity to learn from and meet members of the health, business and sports community who advise on the importance of education and a healthy lifestyle.

After a one-and-a-half hour schoolwork period, the children in good standing—meaning those who have kept up with their academics—race to the school gymnasium where former professional soccer players provide coaching. The sounds of a spirited soccer match echo throughout the hallways.

Shirzadi also uses his professional soccer connections to get professional players from the New England Revolution —where he worked for three years—to come hang out and play soccer with the kids. These surprise guests keep the kids coming, he says, "They don't want to miss a session, because you never know who will show up."

Through his and Centeno's connections, they have also helped some of the kids secure spots on Rhode Island 's Olympic Development Program (ODP) teams. These teams include the best Rhode Island youth soccer players in each age group and compete nationally. GOAL negotiated with the state to waive the restrictive registration fees for GOAL kids that make ODP teams; GOAL provides the transportation. Close to 30 GOAL participates have landed spots on Rhode Island's ODP teams, including one on the Under-14 U.S. National Team, boasts Shirzadi.

Academic opportunities

Shirzadi is quick to point out the academic successes as well. Two of the first kids in the program graduated from high school and are now going to the local colleges. GOAL has also connected with the local private schools—schools that cost upward of $20,000 annually. These schools have funds earmarked for diversity growth, and GOAL has diverse students without the financial means for a private of education. GOAL arranges for the kids to take entrance tests and runs sessions to help their parents apply for financial aid.

"The key word in Greater Opportunity for Athletes to Learn is 'opportunity'; we provide opportunities athletically and academically. Not every kid is going to get into a private school, and we know that. We want to get in as many as we can and so far that's resulted in about 10 kids over the last five years. For these kids, their lives are changed forever. It's a big accomplishment, and we hope these kids will eventually give back to the program."

"It's something that I'm really proud of. We've had some nice moments. It's great to be able to tell a kid that he got into a private school on a full scholarship."

Future goals

Shirzadi also notes that it can be heartbreaking, when he has to turn a kid away for lack of funds or resources. More than 150 kids tried out this year for only 10 openings, he says.

Currently the program is at capacity and the cost of enrollment is about $1,000 per student, which is supported by generous donations from local businesses and foundations.

The program has received a lot of publicity both locally and nationally. GOAL is one of the founding members of the Urban Soccer Collaborative, has been invited to speak at the National Soccer Coaches Convention and was named one of the best practice inner-city soccer programs in the country by the U.S. Soccer Foundation. Invitations to franchise GOAL in areas throughout the nation have been offered and the interest is there, but future growth is limited by its current resources, he says.

Presently GOAL has no paid administrative staff—Shirzadi, Centeno and Whealton, who all have full-time jobs, volunteer their time after hours to manage and grow the program. Shirzadi dreams of hiring a full-time director and acquiring an abandoned building to renovate into classrooms and soccer fields.

"We keep that hope that someone with really deep pockets who sees the value in what we're doing will step up. Imagine how many more kids we can really help with big time funding."

Visit projectgoal.org for more information.