How Soccer is Helping Energize Chicago’s Youth


When Leo Sarabia first heard of a soccer club called Urban Initiatives, he was a third grader in Chicago who just wanted to play with his friends. Now, seven years later, heading into his sophomore year of high school, Sarabia (above) is part of Urban Initiatives’ Coach for Success program, passing on lessons in leadership, accountability, and motivation to younger kids. “So many people taught me and gave me opportunities,” he says. “And now I can do the same.”

Urban Initiatives began in 2003 with two soccer coaches and teachers who wanted to improve sports programming for Chicago’s inner-city youth. The organization recruited 12 children in its first year. Today, the nonprofit serves more than 17,000 Chicago students, the vast majority of whom are low-income minorities. Soccer is the foundation, but the mission is healthy living, academic success, and social-emotional learning. “We believe students learn best when things are fun, and having fun is what carries these kids through learning opportunities,” says Dajuan King, Urban Initiatives’ program manager.


Sarabia plays striker at Westinghouse Prep, a selective-enrollment academy in East Garfield Park, a high-crime area of Chicago. He lives in nearby Austin, and combined, the two neighborhoods had more than 200 shootings in the first seven months of 2019. But as a Coach for Success participant, Sarabia is focused on both his future and those of other kids in the program. He regularly meets with his mentor to discuss what’s going on in his life and work toward post-high-school goals. (He wants to go to college to become an engineer.)

“If it weren’t for Urban Initiatives, I don’t think I would strive to be someone who actually wants to help,” Sarabia says. “I mean, I’m not a horrible person, but the program helps a lot with having a mentality of wanting to do well in school and in the community.”

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