Local youth soccer program helping to ease more than hunger


G.O.A.L. Foundation, a non-profit organization in the Etowah County area, kicked off its first after-school program session on March 16 at Gaston High School​. 

G.O.A.L. is a free mentoring program for ages 5-16 for students within the Etowah County school system. Fab 4 Futsal is a fast-paced indoor soccer game held every Saturday morning at Gaston School’s elementary gym.

With the help of local guidance counselors, students were selected based on effort and attitude. Through the sport of soccer, selected students are mentored for one year. In addition to the mentoring, students are given healthy snacks following each session. 

The beginning of the program started when G.O.A.L co–founder and Gaston High teacher Jennifer Knighten noticed serious food insecurity among students in her school.

“Students were coming in on a Monday asking for snacks because they had nothing to eat over the weekend,” she said. “I felt compelled to do something, so I started a food closet in my classroom with the help of local donors, including local churches. As the word spread, more and more students would come for food, many of them taking food home for the weekend.”

G.O.A.L. co–founder Lee Waddington moved to the U.S. in July of 2015 to hold camps for elite soccer players. Knighten told him of the food insecurity issues, prompting the food bank.  

“Our aim is to meet the total child’s needs; soccer just happens to be the vessel to accomplish this,” said Waddington. 

As she and Waddington began to collaborate, Knighten realized that while giving food out was a great thing, it did not fix the root of the problem. 

“In order to make a genuine difference in the lives of these young students, a mentoring program would need to happen,” she said. 

In the spirit of mentorship, the foundation decided to select five students from Southside High School who were active in their school soccer program. The reason for the students’ selection was partly due to their soccer involvement, but mostly because of their character and involvement in their local community. 

“Each of these Scholars, as we call them, are excellent in character, hard workers, and very caring people, which is why we believed they would serve as excellent mentors,” said Knighten. “The idea is that these Scholars mentor the foundation’s younger kids – otherwise known as our Prospects – and in turn they receive free ACT prep, an experience account, and most importantly, the benefit that comes from donating their time.”

Waddington holds the UEFA ‘A’ license as well as the latest age–specific FA Advanced Youth Award, which is the highest licensing in the soccer community. He has worked for Manchester United, Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers Academy soccer clubs, written numerous articles, appears as a Master Coach on the FA Licensed Coaches website and has been a speaker at con-ferences. 

Waddington has over 23 years experience in the field of soccer, including such areas as club/academy strategy, leadership development, change management, talent development/management, high performance teams and organizational development. His passion is transformation and empowerment of his students, which he facilitates through individual and team coaching, team/coach/player development workshops, consulting assignments and organization-wide strategic change interventions. 

Waddington created a unique learning model and game-based curriculum – now being used within GOAL Foundation – called the Skills Cycle, which focuses on inquiry, deep learning and authentic experiences. He has worked and consulted at leading local and global clubs and academy’s in both professional and private sectors throughout the UK and internationally in the USA, Australia, Canada and across Europe.

Knighten currently is pursuing her Master of Arts degree in Education with Class A Certification for Teaching ESL, with the goal of becoming more educated in the area bridging the gap between young people of significantly varying demographics.

Those interested in participating in the Fab 4 Futsal program or implementing the G.O.A.L. Foundation into a school curriculum are asked visit www.goalfoundation.net​ or email thegoalfoundation@gmail.com or call (256) 328-1118. 

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