Achieving Goals, At Home and Abroad

The World Cup Soccer program provides a healthy activity for international students and also benefits an impoverished town in Costa Rica.
The World Cup Soccer program provides a healthy activity for international students and also benefits an impoverished town in Costa Rica. (Preston Keres - The Washington Post)
By Stephen A. Norris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Sitting in English class at Loudoun County High School in Leesburg last fall, Athus Banegas felt discouraged. His grades had been slipping since he had arrived at the school, and he was having trouble fitting in as one of the few Hispanic students.

What made matters worse was that he knew his friends at Dominion High School in Sterling, which he had attended the previous two years, soon would be lacing up their cleats, changing into soccer shorts and slipping on reversible black and white jerseys with the words "World Cup Soccer Intramurals" printed across the front.

Banegas, 18, who was attending his third high school in four years, longed to return to Dominion, about 15 miles to the southeast. The biggest reason: the intramural soccer program at the school called World Cup Soccer.

"When I was at Loudoun County, I was thinking, 'Oh my God, I have to do World Cup Soccer,' " Banegas said. Within weeks, Banegas was able to re-enroll at Dominion -- and again play the sport he loves.

Banegas, now a senior, is one of the many successes of World Cup Soccer, a program also known as "Athlete to Atleta," which Dominion Athletic Director Joe Fleming began in 2004 as a way to reach out to Hispanic students by encouraging them to participate in an extracurricular activity.

"All Dominion students are expected to be involved in an activity here, and we stress that when they are in middle school," Fleming said. "It can be the fine-art club or a sport, but we had a group of students that we could not latch on to, and the majority of them were Latino males."

The program has grown from 30 participants its first year to more than 60 today.

Students who participate are required to donate soccer equipment -- either their own or equipment collected from local businesses -- to the program, and the more they donate the more points their team earns in the standings. The equipment is shipped to Costa Rica to be distributed to underprivileged and at-risk youth.

"The core of the program is to have young men doing something healthy and something they love instead of going to an empty house or getting in the wrong elements," Fleming said. "They are proving how good they are by giving back to their homeland. It's a win-win situation. It benefits the receiver with some top-quality clothing and equipment and truly enhances what our young men are doing and how they think of themselves."

Across the Washington region, other athletic directors and school administrators are searching for ways to reach out to Hispanic students and encourage them to take part in sports or other school activities outside the classroom. It is one of the bigger challenges facing area schools as the number of Hispanic students increases.

Mike Peters, the athletic director at Manassas Park High School, said teachers in the ESOL -- English to Speakers of Other Languages -- program are helping organize pickup soccer games. Peters said there are about 30 students in middle school and high school that stay after school to take part.

Peters said that the school also has a Hispanic leadership council and that the wrestling program has been popular with many Hispanic boys. Hispanic students make up 43.6 percent of the Manassas Park city schools.

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