Would it surprise you to know that for the past three years, Swarthmore’s men’s soccer team has led the Centennial Conference in home attendance? It’s the case, and according to Coach Eric Wagner, it’s because the program has made a sustained commitment to being involved in the greater Swarthmore community. As an example, he cited a game on a Saturday night at the end of fall break. “Students weren’t back yet for the most part, but about four hundred people were in the stands.”
This involvement is based around instructional clinics for local children, a monthly Kids Night Out program where Swarthmore athletes play with kids, and charity work, from the recent youth clinic for the Genocide Intervention Network to helping the Presbyterian Church unload the trucks for their annual flea market. Current team member Jeff Kushner ’09 remembered “it took the entire team a good two hours to move everything… there was no way they could move all of it on their own.”
“From our point of view, we’re a small college,” said Wagner, “so it behooves us in many different ways to get the community involved… they can come down and watch our games and matches.” On a more personal level, “at the heart of what we do is spreading the excitement and the joy of our games in the community in which we live. I would love it if every child in the country was playing soccer… all the coaches feel the same way about their sport.” Furthermore, community members “are wonderful supporters of our programs in terms of financial opportunities.” Wagner said that although “we have great budgets for our major needs, every once in a while we need to enhance.” Once every four years, each team is allowed to take an overseas trip, and the money for that trip is “purely from fundraising.” Even abroad, the soccer team likes to help out: when they went to England in 2005, they did a community service project for a “Goodwill”-type store in East London.
One example of fundraising for the entire athletics program is Kids Night Out, which was started in the spring of 2005 and takes place four times a semester. One team or a group of teams is in charge, and “we invite the community to bring their kids for the evening… their kids play basketball and Frisbee and soccer and play in the batting cages.” Wagner says parents love it because it’s babysitting for a Friday night, and also “the student athletes who are interacting with the kids and being role models.” In turn, it’s an amazing fundraiser for the athletics program. “We’ve had anywhere from forty on our worst nights to one hundred and thirty last time… we raised six thousand dollars last academic year.”
Most of this outreach is done through a network of local youth soccer clubs, alumni contacts, and the Swarthmore Recreation Association, but sometimes locals with no obvious connection develop a relationship with the team. Wagner told a funny story about having a woman stop him in the supermarket. “She recognized me, and I was waiting for her to say whose parent she was,” but she and her husband had just stopped by a game three years ago, and the woman said, “we thought you were a fantastic team and we’ve been to every game since.” Kushner agreed, saying “I can’t remember a game where we didn’t have a ton of little kids helping out on the sidelines or cheering us on in the stands.”
The idea for the charity clinic was born in spring of 2003. One of the players on the squad at the time was from Ethiopia, Anteneh Tesfaye ’03. Wagner “had heard a report of a bitter famine during the winter of 2002,” and the squad worked together to put a clinic on for Super Bowl Sunday, a date which the charity clinic has stuck with ever since. There were sixty-nine children enrolled in 2003, but the program grew to one hundred and thirty six this year. Kushner said of clinics, “it’s a great way to earn money with relatively little effort on our part and we are doing something we love… the kids love being around the older college athlete and it’s nice for us to help out the kids and show them a good time.”
The clinic this year made over twenty-one-hundred dollars. “The first few years we sent the money to a charity called Africare,” said Wagner, “but the woman I had contact with there left and we wanted to help a more Swarthmore-based charity.” Wagner knew Mark Hanis ’05, the founder of GI-NET, from one of his physical education classes, and for the last three years the money has gone to the Genocide Intervention Network. Team members have given presentations about the crisis in Darfur to the children at the clinic, and this year, they also went to give a presentation to the Swarthmore Rotary Club accompanied by members of Swat Sudan.
Wagner says that over the years, many of his players have told him that part of the reason they chose the Swarthmore soccer program is “because of the service element… they want to be involved in the community.” Kushner said, “it give the soccer team and entire athletic department a great reputation… I really take pride and enjoy the fact that I’m doing something positive for the community.” Duncan Gromko ’07 wrote in an e-mail that “community service benefits the soccer team because it shows us how influential we can be.”
“The bottom line is this,” concluded Wagner, “we’re playing a game and I feel like it’s great for the student athletes… but we’re just playing games, does that have a broader meaning other than fun and enjoyment? For my spiritual and moral existence, I can’t claim that to be fully satisfying… when I do get involved with the community, whether it’s teaching young kids or acting as a role model, we’ve transcended the bounds of just playing for ourselves… when you start raising money or educating about crises, then you’ve transcended that boundary even further… now we’re putting our physical capabilities to work for the greater good.”