Pay It Forward: Unlikely combination of soccer and poetry proves inspiring for D.C. students

WASHINGTON (WJLA) - On a hot summer afternoon in Washington D.C., a classroom full of grade-school children get a lesson in old-school music as James Brown plays in the background at Marie Reed Elementary school in Adams Morgan.

“Do you know who this is?” the instructor asks. A few children respond with raised hands and outbursts. Before long, the Godfather of Soul is identified and the children go on to cut and decorate records made out of construction paper.

This exercise in creativity is one facet of the D.C. Scores program. At the heart of the program is the combination of soccer, poetry, and service learning.

“A teacher named Julie Kennedy who was looking for something to do for her fourth-grade girls, they played soccer after school until it rained one day,” Katrina Owens, senior director of programs said.

“They said, ‘Ms. Kennedy, what are we going to do?’ her other passion was creative writing, and out of that was born the combination of poetry and soccer.”

After the addition of service learning, the three pillars of the D.C. Scores program were solidified for their students from third to eighth gradeS.

During the school year the program serves 1,500 students at 47 different schools in the District. During the summer the program is condensed into afternoon camps.

“Summer camp is really an awesome time; it's one of my favorite parts of the year," program manager Carlos Fonseca said. "Just bringing all these kids together [from] across the district in all 47 schools, and bringing them together into four different camps.”

The type of learning the program encourages during the year doesn’t stop because school’s out.

As the students finished decorating their records they shared them with the group.

A young man named Ang Zouma, who will begin sixth grade in the fall, spoke confidently about his brightly decorated record.

“It helped me become more powerful and less shy,” he said about participating in the D.C. Scores program. “If I'm going to get a job I'll need to speak in front of a lot of people.”

The group finishes up their record projects and heads outside for soccer. This is the part of the program Ang says helped him grow with passing, running, and having more fun.

Mentors scatter across the field helping the students line up for the soccer game.

Claudia Merlos is a student at Trinity, but once lined up for the same games she’s helping with today. Now her younger sister participates in the program.

“I learned a lot of communication skills, I learned how to talk to my team and how to communicate with them well,” Merlos said about her time as a student participant in D.C. “Now that I’m grown and going to college and all that, I can use all that not just on the field but off of the field as well.”

In 20 years the program has expanded way beyond its flagship location and is now in 14 other cities. D.C. Scores is a branch under the umbrella of America Scores.

“We love the fact that we are partnering with schools, which means we are a part of the community,” Owens said. “We're really committed to engaging the entire community in the work that these students are doing and achieving.”