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Camden Soccer Club Offers Kids Recreation, Purpose

By Lucas K. Murray, Courier-Post, May 11, 2011
Photo gallery by Denise Henhoeffer


Photo Gallery by Denise Henhoeffer From a distance, Camden's Pyne Poynt Park could be like any other in South Jersey. A sailboat floats by. A cool breeze gently rustles the leaves on a line of trees. And the sound of children chasing soccer balls echoes across a green field.

Yes, from a distance, this home to the Camden Youth Soccer Club could be anywhere. But if you're seeing it from a distance, you'd be standing in one of the roughest parts of the city, notorious for its drug sales and violence. It's the "beautiful game" played in a sometimes-ugly area.

"These kids are Camden," says Charles Holland, who was born and raised in the city. "It takes them from their other surroundings and puts them in the middle of something positive." Holland watched Saturday as his 4-year-old son, Kinson, kicked around a ball in his red-and-blue CYSC uniform. There were young people from every corner of the troubled city. Kinson is in the youngest CYSC group. Players as old as 14 are allowed to participate, but play on larger fields with larger goals. The younger players shoot on portable targets, on smaller fields. "He's getting to interact with the other kids; all the instruction is positive," Holland says. "They let them run freely, but there's still some structure to it."

This is CYSC's eighth year. Back in 2003, nearly 450 kids signed up to participate for its spring and fall seasons. For spring, there are about 170. Despite the decline, it's still a positive number for a city known more for its football and basketball programs.

"You're fighting football, you're fighting basketball, but this has taken off," says CYSC head coach Jerry Jerome. "It really has and these children love it. They can just be themselves out here." Jerome has been on board with CYSC since the beginning. It initially garnered support from local political leaders and businesses, but that has largely dropped off. "Eight years later, we're still here," he says. Jerome is accompanied by a devoted core of volunteers that help out every Saturday. They're charged with handing out water and snacks, taking registrations and collecting the $10 per season participation fee.

Hours before the cleats are laced up, Barry Evans is out lining the fields and tying nets to the goal frames. Evans, a native of Scotland who lives in Camden, said the addition of the Philadelphia Union to Major League Soccer is something for the young players to aspire to. Last year, former Union winger Shea Salinas visited the club, giving the kids a taste of what's possible through soccer. "While we aren't a club set up to produce future U.S. World Cup team members, there are a lot of kids who have the natural talent to do so," Evans explains. "Hopefully, enjoying themselves with us and seeing more soccer on television will help out. The worst thing to see as a soccer coach is to lose your talent to other sports."

The emphasis here is placed on fun before actual competition. Unlike groups found elsewhere, CYSC plays all its matches in-house, with an hour of instruction followed by an hour of scrimmages. "It is run based on the core beliefs that first you teach the kids to have fun with a soccer ball, then you teach them to play the game," Evans says.

The game itself is international and that's reflected on the shirts volunteer coaches wear. The words "Camden Youth Soccer Club" are translated into four languages: English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese. "We now have a "multinational' coaching setup, with coaches from Holland, England, Scotland and the U.S.," Evans says. "Therefore — the kids will learn to play total football."

East Camden resident Eileen Cartagena says soccer gives her daughter Isabella a chance to get up and out on Saturdays — away from the television and into relationships with other kids. "She's very active," Cartagena says. "I thought it'd be a good thing for her to get out and burn some energy."

"And then we get a break, too," jokes Isabella's grandfather, Luis.

The conditions at the park aren't always ideal, with grass in some spots and dirt patches in others. Organizers often have to adjust field sizes to avoid large pools of water. Storms and flooding hampered games at Pyne Poynt the past two weekends, but the rain didn't stop Jewel Wallace from bringing her 5-year-old daughter, Lexi, to the park. The pair, from South Camden, decided to brave wet conditions just to kick the ball around. Wallace played soccer as a youngster and only recently became aware of the program.

"It was a challenge," she says of why she got into the game to begin with. "To be honest, I wanted to see if I could do it. I'd love for my daughter to continue on with this through college." Lexi romped among other kids Saturday in a mad dash to gain possession of the ball. Eventually she picked up the ball with her hands before delivering a powerful kick into the back of the goal. An illegal move to be sure, but a huge smile followed.

In a perfect world, the soccer program would have a complex of its own. Meanwhile, the challenge for volunteers like Evans is not so much to grow grass on the field, but to bring Camden back to greatness through its youth. "Hopefully, the club will continue to be a big part in the community," Evans says. "We feel that we can help the kids grow into the adults we know they can become — and that they will give back to the community as we gave to them."

Reach Lucas K. Murray at (856) 486-2476 or