Inaugural KickStart season-end tournament gives kids a chance to compete and re-connect with peers

tenant youth playing soccer

Kids from six TCHC communities participate in KickStart's soccer tournament on October 16, 2021

The lush green grass was still wet and muddy from the previous day's downpour, but that didn't stop 45 kids from jubilantly kicking their soccer balls around with friends at Dovercourt Park last weekend.

Smiles and laughter abounded – and for good reason: The MLSE KickStart program was hosting its very first season-end soccer tournament for kids aged 8-14 from six TCHC communities.

"The program has been around for nine years and while there's always been friendlies within communities, this is a first," says Christine Lam, Toronto Community Housing's Supervisor, Active Living and Centralized Programs. "It's really a big outdoor soccer festival that brings multiple teams for a day of physical activity, competition, fun, but also learning."

In the morning, school buses picked up cohorts from across the city. All children were provided with socks, shin guards, shorts, jerseys, and a BMO soccer ball upon arrival. A catering company was on site with lunch that included Kool-Aid jammers, banana bread, chicken wraps, and carrots. After the tournament, there was an award ceremony including trophy presentations and speeches. By the end, a champion was crowned, plenty of fun was had, and buses were ready to take the children back home to their communities.

In Partnership with MLSE Foundation and sponsored by BMO, the KickStart program is a free, nine-week soccer program that teaches soccer skills to children aged 6-13, while providing participants a safe environment to learn about physical literacy, team work, and leadership skills. Meeting three times a week in their respective communities, the program includes school homework sessions, snack time, skill and drill sessions, and visits to a nearby community for a friendly match.

In a typical year, KickStart brings more than 300 children from 15 communities together starting in late August to October. The season usually kicks off at the Toronto FC (TFC) practice facility in Downsview Park, where participants are joined by MLSE Foundation staff members, sponsors, and TFC players for meet and greets, skill development drills, and fun giveaways.

But this year wasn't a typical year. And neither was last year when a global pandemic struck everyone's lives.

With the pandemic raging on and health and safety restrictions still in effect for physical activity and sport, TCHC's Active Living team delayed the 2020 KickStart season to March to May 2021 – and all in online format.

"We asked ourselves, 'how do deliver an outdoor sports program virtually?'", Lam recalls, laughingly. "It was certainly a challenge and we had to be creative. How do we engage and stimulate young children both physically and mentally all through a video screen?"

It's a fair question and one that Lam and her team – including Ryan James and Rafael Da Silva, both program coordinators – pondered as they looked to re-connect with tenants and their children in the new world of zoom fatigue.

Group photo of TCHC and KickStart staff outdoors in the park wearing masks

Active Living staff who oversee and organize the many youth and recreation programs at Toronto Community Housing

Thankfully, KickStart was always more than just about soccer. It's about learning life skills, social development, and finding a sense of belonging within a group. It's also about adjustments. And soon, with nearly 120 kids registered across the East, West, and Central regions, virtual programs ran every Thursday and Friday for an hour and a half. Sessions continued to incorporate home work time, while adding educational games and arts & craft that taught the rules of the game, and of course, snacks time. As for the physical activity portion, children were still able to participate in stretches, jumping jacks, push-ups, and basic soccer drills with a ball. But Lam and her team needed to continually think outside the box.

"We ran weekly video challenges that asked participants to record themselves doing neat tricks like hitting water bottles, juggling, 'around the world' challenge, and more," said Lam. "I joined in on the fun one week and somehow figured out a way to record myself doing keep-ups!".

The team also received 'KickDeck Cards' from MLSE Foundation that were distributed to the kids which had descriptions of soccer activities that can be performed in a small space, like dribbling the ball, simple strength and core workouts, technique drills around pylons, and much more. The kids would 'activate' these soccer training cards and carry out the activities with their peers on video.

"Some were joining us online through their phones. Many kids were using their parents' computers or tablets," explains Lam. "Children were joining us from their homes, in their balconies, or outside in parks."

As October neared, the Active Living team finally had the opportunity to carry out an in-person tournament where kids were no longer divided into digital screen boxes but could interact in real life. The tournament turned out to be a huge success.

Group photo of TCHC staff and tenant youth wearing soccer outfits, cheering and holding up trophies

The North Finch East squad were crowned as champions at the KickStart 2021 tournament

"This event that we ran was super important for the kids," acknowledges Lam. "For some, it was really the first major in-person event – let alone sporting event. Parents have told us it's not only the socialization that was needed, but being outside and being physically active with friends after so many lockdowns."

Lam and her team wants to continue to make the program bigger and better moving forward. And with incredible supporters and sponsors like MLSE Foundation and BMO, the sky is the limit.

"Maybe next year we can host the tournament at BMO Field?" Lam wonders out loud. "It would be cool for the kids to attend a TFC game. We'll see!"

About Toronto Community Housing

Toronto Community Housing is Canada's largest social housing provider. Toronto Community Housing provides homes for nearly 60,000 low- and moderate-income households in neighbourhoods across the city. Toronto Community Housing is wholly owned by the City of Toronto and represents a $10-billion public asset.

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