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La Escuelita de Fútbol Scores Big with the Kids

playingsoccerEscuelita de Fútbol originated as a soccer program – informally led by teachers – offered on Saturday mornings at Lincoln Elementary. The school is a Spanish-English dual language emersion and has the highest percentage of Latino students and the highest percentage of children on free and reduced lunch in Corvallis, the largest city in Benton County. The teachers simply filled an unmet need. They did it because many of the children at the school wanted an outlet to play soccer and were not connected to recreation programs offered by the City of Corvallis Parks & Recreation Department. Obstacles to accessing these programs by many low income and minority populations in Corvallis include transportation, cultural, language, expense and/or registration procedures. That is all changing, and it began with Escuelita de Fútbol.

Access to Parks and Recreation
In early 2009, the Benton County HKHC partnership proposed that the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities coordinator position be co-placed and co-supervised at the Benton County Health Department and the Corvallis Parks & Recreation Department. Tatiana Dierwechter, Benton County Health Services’ Health Promotions Manager, said, “The co-shared position was a wild idea. We previously had not worked formally with parks and rec before and wanted to have them engaged at the beginning.” Both departments were enthusiastic about the idea, as it was the first time the city and county have done something like this together. After receiving the grant, they hired Megan Patton-Lopez to fill this new position. Megan sees herself as a liaison to both departments, but not before learning the processes and how decisions are made within these two bureaucracies. Dierwechter said, “Physically, [Megan’s] in two places, but the real value of this innovative staff model is that she is working in two worlds.” One of the intentions is to connect low income and underserved families to Parks and Recreation Department services and resources, something the Parks and Recreation Department has struggled with in the past.

The 2010 Census shows that 7% of Corvallis’ population is Latino/Hispanic, and the Parks and Recreation Department is continuing to look for ways to reach out to this population. And that is where Escuelita comes in. This informal program was running on its own at Lincoln Elementary for two years. Based on the findings from a needs assessment conducted by the HKHC partnership, it was evident that many families were not accessing parks and recreation resources. The families that participated in the needs assessment wanted programs in their neighborhoods, in their language and that were culturally appropriate. They especially wanted soccer.

As a result, Corvallis Parks & Recreation and Benton County Health Department collaborated with Lincoln School to institutionalize Escuelita. Corvallis Parks & Recreation was interested in learning from it in order to build more programs to serve low-income and minority families in Corvallis. Megan’s new role and the HKHC partnership built the parks and recreation department’s capacity for outreach. In order to make a successful program, they needed community input and buy-in.

Dierwechter said, “We wanted to figure out what it takes to do something like this.” A planning team was formed with parents, health department staff, teachers, and Parks and Recreation Department staff to put together a workplan.

The result was an overwhelming success. In 2010, Corvallis Parks & Recreation Department served approximately 50 Lincoln Elementary families. In 2011, 120 Lincoln students participated in Escuelita de Fútbol’s eight week program. Rocio Muñoz, who coordinates outreach to the Latino community and trains lay health workers said, “Parks and Rec were surprised and pleased by the turnout. And they were so excited and fully engaged about this shift.” Participants were primarily low income and minority families, and almost all were families who had not engaged with the city before.

Maximizing Opportunities
While Escuelita is just one program within the parks and recreation department, its impact rippled throughout the department. The department hired a bilingual, bicultural coordinator who lives in Corvallis. This coordinator position was created in order to intentionally reach out to the Latino community and eventually work on policy changes. Also, the department’s family assistance program, which offers scholarships to families who need help paying for the parks and recreation department programs, has worked to eliminate barriers to utilizing the scholarships. The department changed its policy so no copayment is needed and they can fast track eligibility by simply verifying Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) and Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) beneficiaries for eligibility. Megan and other staff members are also rewriting many of the parks and recreation department materials, not only to include a Spanish language version, but also to make materials more readable and understandable for those with lower literacy levels.

The successes have trickled into the school system, as well. One of the school-based health clinic providers who is concerned about overweight and obesity among the children refers them to Escuelita de Fútbol.

The success of Escuelita de Fútbol has not come without some growing pains. As a result of the overwhelming participation among the Spanish-speaking community in Corvallis, the parks and recreation department is working with front line staff to be sensitive to language and other cultural differences. The department also  expanded programming to include popular bilingual swimming lessons and an adult Zumba class.

Dierwechter said, “Our goal is to maximize the opportunities for these families…and we’ve created a family-like partnership. There is a spirit of collaboration and we are eager for comments and input.” For example, initially, the parks and recreation department suggested putting registration for Escuelita online, but after considering the population they were trying to reach, they recognized this was an inappropriate strategy. Although not as convenient, giving out information face-to-face increased families’ awareness of programs. The department is currently considering conducting bilingual registration for recreation programs through the health department.

Building Momentum
The Benton County health department staff is already working together in other areas of these community members’ lives, and trust has already been established. Through the joint efforts of the parks and recreation department and the health department staff, messages about Escuelita are shared through word of mouth. The staff work with families to fill out the appropriate registration and family assistance program paperwork.

Muñoz and Dierwechter agreed that these organizational changes are laying the groundwork for bigger policies down the road. Muñoz said, “We’re taking advantage of the momentum we’ve got going. We’re keeping the families involved with what’s happening and identifying champions. People are utilizing the services and they are at the table to support and advocate for the services as we go through this process.”

Community members and decision makers alike are understanding how valuable the resources and relationships are. Dierwechter said, “[The partnership] is the glue that connects the dots. It is exciting for us see families becoming more confident and empowered.” The two departments working together is just the beginning of what can happen to make physical activity more accessible for all families in Benton County.


September, 2011