One man's mission to bring soccer back to Germantown
A tall, slender man dressed in sweats decorated with a shield-shaped soccer-themed emblem brushed through the maze-like halls of the Germantown Life Enrichment Center.
When he entered any given room, he boomed out greetings in a confident yet friendly voice. He shook hands with anyone taking a break from bench presses or squats.
When asked where he was from, he beamed.
"Nigeria," he said. "But I'm from Germantown now."
Finding a void
Meet Yomi Awodesu, 47, the newly hired program director of the Germantown Life Enrichment Center (GLEC).
Two years ago, Awodesu started the Germantown Soccer Club after he noticed a lack of serious — and affordable — programs in the neighborhood. That's what the emblem on his sweats represents.
"All the kids in the surrounding community always go to Chestnut Hill to do a soccer program in the fall," he said. "There are only a few people [here in Germantown] that can take their kids and can afford it."
When Awodesu, who has played soccer all his life, took his young son Femi to the program, it wasn't what he was expecting.
"It's the parents that run the program, not professionals," he said.
Why not Germantown?
Awodesu, a self-described soccer player, musician and storyteller, spent some time researching the history of Germantown, specifically checking for when the last soccer program thrived.
He said he was shocked to find that the last program was in the early 1900s. Awodesu said he thought that since Germantown's early settlers were Germans, the area would have stayed a little more true to its roots.
"They're known for soccer, Germany," he said, "so I thought there must be some kind of soccer thing that happened here before."
That's when he set out, with the help of his lawyer friend Rob Johns, on a mission to change that. They started at a Mt. Airy Day.
"It's where we put the information out to people that we are doing this," Awodesu recalled. "We got a lot of response."
A program is born
That first summer, the program was housed at the Mallery Recreation Center. Awodesu singlehandedly led 150 kids, between the ages of 5 and 12, in the indoor-soccer program. The next year, they moved to the Boys and Girls Club.
Eventually, he enlisted Starfinder, an educational soccer non-profit in Manayunk which loaned Awodesu a few soccer coaches.
While the program continued into the winter, Awodesu still wasn't entirely happy with the progress.
In those colder months, the children had to use Starfinder's facilities in Manayunk. This, again, left some kids out.
"I have a lot that couldn't go over there because their parents didn't have the time to take their kids over there to go and do that program," he said. "What they're doing is good, but they have the building."
This year and beyond
Last winter marked the first season that Awodesu had indoor soccer in his own neighborhood. They played at the GLEC, where officials were so impressed by Awodesu's dedication to the kids that they hired him as program director.
Awodesu said he plans on having a 9-to-5 summer camp for kids of all ages with not only sports, but African music and visits to the Germantown Historical Society and the Weavers Way farm. The six-week camp starts at the end of June.
"I try to do a quality program at very low cost to serve the community," he said. "I believe Germantown is underserved."
Awodesu said he also hopes to get the city to take action to resurface Vernon Park, located across the street from the GLEC. Once Vernon Park is in decent enough shape to do so, indoor games will shift outside, he said.
Parents are pleased with Awodesu's soccer club.
Denise Douglas' 7-year-old son Ismail has been enrolled in the Afro Beats soccer class with Awodesu for about two months. She said she plans on enrolling her son in future classes and is thrilled that Germantown finally has something in the neighborhood for kids to do.
"You have to be very aggressive in research [for programs]," she said. "But [when you find them], you have to travel to Mt. Airy or Chestnut Hill. It's one of the best neighborhoods in the city, but it's not valued."
Awodesu said he hopes to shift that mentality.
"People leave to go do other things," he said. "This place has been here for a long time. It went through trouble for a couple of years, but it's going to go back up now."