Location: Charlotte, NC
Katie Phillips loves soccer. She grew up playing it and played on the varsity soccer team at Houghton College in New York. She has traveled the world with the game she loves, and has seen firsthand how soccer unites people and is, as she puts it, “the big equalizer.” Her experience playing with people who do not look like her or speak English has Katie convinced that soccer is “the universal language.” And as someone who valued the role her soccer coaches played in her life, Katie also saw how soccer could be used as a way of meeting other needs in the community. “I have seen the power of sport and how that is a way to invest in people,” Katie says.
After graduating from Houghton College with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and minor in sports ministry, she moved to Charlotte in 2014. She was ready for a change of scene and willing to take whatever job came her way, knowing that her dream of channeling her love of soccer into a career would have to be put on the back burner for a few years. She was hired as a second grade teaching assistant at Berryhill Elementary School, a Title I school in West Charlotte, North Carolina, and then took over a middle school algebra class when the teacher went on maternity leave. In both instances, Katie saw a tremendous need for mentorship and guidance. “These kids are from a very transient community,” Katie says. “They are moving homes, and people are coming in and out of their lives.” But Katie initially felt part of the transience. “I didn’t feel like I could make the impact I wanted with them in the classroom,” she says.
That changed when she started coaching the middle school soccer team, comprised of children from the surrounding Hispanic community. She started getting to know the kids and their families in a way that she couldn’t within the confines of the classroom. “I fell in love with the families and the community,” Katie says, and she knew that her days in the classroom were over. In 2016, she approached Soccer Shots, a franchise business that offers soccer programming for two to eight year olds. Katie loved the emphasis on soccer and the fact that Soccer Shots serves over 10,000 children in the Charlotte area, but she also knew that using a “pay to play” model meant that families who cannot afford the fee for the 10-week season are left out.
She told Soccer Shots that she really liked their company and the fact that they were using soccer to play a role in kids’ lives. She also told them she wanted to figure out a way to reach the kids who were being left out of the equation. Soccer Shots liked her idea and saw the same need, but had other more pressing needs. They offered Katie a position as their office director. “I was terrible at that job,” Katie says. “It was not a good fit.” But she knew that her long-term goal of starting a soccer nonprofit was in keeping with a vision Soccer Shots had as well. Recognizing that the office director position was not the best use of her passion and skills, Soccer Shots created a community outreach role for her. The condition was that she would start on a part-time status and see if she could turn the opportunity into a realization of her vision.
After six months, and many community events and outreach to grow the program, Katie now works full-time running QC Scores, a joint venture with Soccer Shots whose mission is “to give every child in Charlotte a chance to play [soccer], regardless of their background or socioeconomic status.” Katie has been gratified to see the program “grow like crazy,” serving over 250 low-income children this past year.
QC scores is not just focused on soccer, but rather uses soccer as a way of promoting health and character development to Charlotte’s underserved youth. The program offers one hour sessions (including both soccer skills workshops and health education) three days per week for 24 weeks of the school year. “We go into their neighborhood or their [Title I] elementary school,” Katie says, explaining that they switched to neighborhoods after finding that many children could not participate in afterschool programming because of transportation issues. “Now they take the school bus home,” Katie says, “and we meet them in a neighborhood park or playground within walking distance of where they live.”
Each team of fifteen is given a coach/mentor for the duration of the season. The coach is often someone from the community, like a teacher, whom QC Scores hires and trains. “We pay our coaches well because we need them to show up and make it a priority so that the kids can count on them,” Katie says. She says they intentionally pick community leaders who are already invested in the children, and “we then invest in them.” She sees this model as a win for everyone involved because “teachers are so undervalued, so we are able to pay them a little more to do what they were already doing on behalf of these kids.”
Over the year, the teams scrimmage and play friendly games with other teams. This year, QC Scores will also offer an eight-week summer league and will provide transport between the neighborhood sites. Funding comes from grants and Novant Health (thanks to the health education component of the program) and fundraisers. Katie explains that the funding needs are extensive because, she says, “we are trying to make this sustainable.” Katie does not want the program to be another transient part of the children’s lives, so she will not commit to a school or neighborhood site unless she has secured enough funding to be there three years.
“We need to look three years out,” she says, “because we aren’t just going in there to play a few games of soccer until the funding runs out. We have bigger goals.”
Among those goals is providing the children who participate in QC Scores with a mentor who can be a positive adult in their lives. “Research shows that a positive coach or mentor can reverse trauma that children experience,” Katie says. “It can change the trajectory of their lives.” She was able to see this play out with one of the QC scores children, who ran to his coach’s house one night when his father was unexpectedly arrested. “That had nothing to do with soccer,” Katie says. “But we created a relationship where the first person that
player went to was the coach.” Katie says that experience confirms that QC Scores is on to something. “Trust and access,” she says. “Both were there and made a difference.”
As she reflects on the defining role that soccer played in her own life, Katie is gratified that she is now making soccer more accessible to children who otherwise couldn’t afford it. “In a world that is more divided than ever,” Katie says, “we need to find commonality with people who are different. Soccer bridges the divide.”
For more information about QC Scores: