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.
"If we don't get the Hispanic kids to participate," Peters said, "some of our [athletic] programs will fall by the wayside."
Leon Reed, an ESOL teacher at Woodbridge High School, put together a soccer team of mostly Latino students to play in recreational leagues in Virginia and Maryland.
"Being on the Woodbridge ESOL team made them special," Reed said. "The teachers, several counselors and assistant principals, and the principal himself were interested in the team. They'd ask the players on Monday how the game went and several came to the games. This was one of the main benefits I saw from the team. I still see carryover now in terms of general self-esteem and identification with the school."
Dominion, which has a student body that is 21 percent Hispanic, was searching for ways to engage Hispanic boys a few years back when Fleming went on vacation in Costa Rica. There, he came across a grassless piece of land in the middle of a town, on which young boys were playing soccer barefoot and with no equipment.
"As I drove by I was thinking, 'Wow, I have a lot of equipment at the school that kids leave behind and we just throw away,' " Fleming recalled. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if I could send these kids some of the stuff we take for granted?' "
It was the inspiration for World Cup Soccer.
The first shipment of equipment collected by Dominion students went out in June, and Fleming said they sent a second shipment of 3,000 reversible jerseys last month. The shipping costs are borne by Jay Harkey, the girls' lacrosse coach at Loudoun Valley High who also runs Tortuga Associates, a company that develops land in Latin America.
The program is paying dividends at Dominion, as well. Fleming points to Banegas as a prime example of what he hoped it would accomplish.
Banegas, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Honduras, failed his freshman year at Handley High School in Winchester, Va., then successfully petitioned the school system to transfer to Dominion. He said he frequently skipped classes and had a hard time fitting in as one of the few Hispanics at Handley.
"I couldn't communicate with the people," Banegas said. "I didn't like them, and they didn't like me. I got suspended two or three times, so I was like, 'I am failing. This is not for me.' "
Banegas said his grades began to climb at Dominion, where Fleming, Principal John Brewer and several teachers began to show an interest in his success. When Banegas joined the World Cup Soccer program that fall, he quickly made friends. He said it also kept him from the strong influence of gangs in Sterling.
"If you are in World Cup Soccer, you won't be out in the streets all the time," said Banegas, who said that he has never been in a gang but that he has friends and family members involved. "Once you start playing, you want school to end so fast so you can go play soccer instead of going home to push drugs."
Banegas, who needed to petition to attend Dominion each school year because he lives outside the district, was turned down after his sophomore year -- forcing him to spend five unhappy weeks at Loudoun County High last fall before Fleming, Brewer and others at Dominion managed to persuade school officials to let him return. He said he now has a C-plus average in school.
Banegas's story is not uncommon. Students involved in the World Cup Soccer program note many benefits, including drastic improvement in grades, helping them prepare for the varsity soccer season in the spring and satisfaction in giving back to Latin America.
"No one wants to have to stay after school to catch up on homework and miss the games," said senior Michel Bascopade, who was born in Bolivia. "It's made me work harder to keep my grades up and learn the language."
According to Fleming, the failure rate among Hispanic males at Dominion fell 29 percent from 2004 to last year, and the absentee rate among Latino males has dropped from 5.8 percent to 5.1 percent.
"Helping others makes you less selfish," said Emerson Maradiaga, a native of Honduras who graduated from Dominion in 2007. Maradiaga said he had a 1.0 grade-point average before transferring to Dominion as a sophomore. "Hopefully we can be a role model for other people. Your heart just rejoices when you give back."
No one was happier than Fleming to learn about the reaction of officials in rural Costa Rica to the first shipment of soccer equipment from Dominion when it arrived in August.
Ana Chavarr¿a, the vice mayor of Quepos del Cant¿n de Aguirre, a town in southwestern Costa Rica where the average family makes $10 a day, said more than 600 children were on hand to open the packages of soccer uniforms, cleats, shorts, shin pads and trophies collected by the students at Dominion.
"It's incredible, the kids' reaction when they open the boxes and see all this equipment," Chavarr¿a said through an interpreter during a telephone interview. "The thing that is more touching is the hope these kids see."
In Sterling, Fleming's eyes lit up as he listened to Chavarr¿a talk about the impact Athlete to Atleta has made in her town. She told him she plans to send video footage of the children opening the packages.
"Wow," Fleming said. "That was powerful."
The program Fleming started three years ago now attracts students from more than 12 countries, including non-Spanish-speaking countries such as Ghana and Pakistan. The students involved say they hope to give equipment to each of their countries one day, and Fleming said he wants to expand the program to schools all over the region.
"We need a lot of little things that cost money, but it's really not that much when you think about the impact it's making on the young men in our community and in Latin America," Fleming said. "We now have something that is proven, and I would ask any school to try it."