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Watchung Hills SA/NJ Elite offers lessons on and off the field through its core values program

By Michael Lewis, 04/22/21, 10:00AM EDT

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Sports, they say can offer many life lessons. Soccer certainly has their fair share of them.


But the Watchung Hills Soccer Association/NJ Elite club also has found an avenue for its players to receive some valuable lessons outside of the beautiful game, by giving back to the community.


In a new core values program that the club implemented earlier this year, some 65 players are giving back to the Township of Warren, N.J. community through various projects. "It's not just about soccer," club president Frank Sena said. "It's long term. It's about building milestones."


What has surprised Sena and the club's board of directors was that that many players took up the core values program challenge. The board was expecting perhaps 20 players to sign up after it was announced on Jan. 5. "It's been great," Sena said. "We've gotten numerous emails from parents saying that this is a great idea. With everything that has gone on with COVID — a lot of the schools have kind of shut down — there's just not [a lot] of volunteer opportunities or any kind of service. Everybody's very, very excited."


At the moment, there are five groups that are doing community service when they are not competing on the soccer field. One group is collecting used soccer equipment for the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s Passback program and Samba 360, organizations that acquires soccer balls, shirts, short and cleats and redistributes them for needy children.


Another group is working with a food pantry, working with several schools to collect food.


A third has planned to sign up with Charity Miles, which allows participants to raise money for charities while walking, running or jogging. Corporations sponsor every mile recorded and a donation is made to the chosen charity.


A fourth group is working with Moms Helping Moms, a New Jersey diaper bank that also helps out with other necessities for babies whose mothers are in need.


And there is a fifth group that is doing service back to the soccer club itself, finding a way to promote and sell its logo by putting it on various products.


"The plan is for them to kind of work through the season, which is through June," Sena said. "And then they sign up again in the Fall and then we start again. Some will do the same charities, I assume. Others will select different charities, and we'll have a different crop of players then."


Even the mayor is interested in getting involved. "We've had conversations with the mayor in town. His grandkids are starting to play in our program now," Sena said. "He's probably going to do a presentation and service.


"So, it's definitely resonated. It's gotten way ahead of where I thought it would be at this point. But there's challenges with growing and being that popular that fast. We've got to make sure it's organized. You want to have some successful projects at the end of the year."


Established in 1978, Watchung Hills SA/NJ Elite is a non-profit organization that has found its own unique, path in youth soccer. Sena said the club has taken a "holistic approach."


"The way we're approaching the players in the club has manifested itself over the last few years," he said. "The biggest problem that we continue to see, particularly in New Jersey, is the fact that clubs are more and more focused on players as dollars, and they are trying to make as much money as possible. Many players are being sold a line of goods. It's all about, 'Oh yeah, come on, come play.' It's really just to charge more in fees. We took a step back as a nonprofit and said, 'What do we want to be?'


"So, we came up with values. We're going start taking a more holistic approach. We really defined our message and it's the athletics, academics and community. We've got the athletics, like we're really good at soccer. We've got the right people training people to be good soccer players. That's still the fundamental goal of the club but we're also now focusing on academics. But then more importantly, how do we get them to contribute to community service."


And the core value program was born.


The Watchung Hills board of directors are advisors for the players and their projects.


"It's really a sounding board," Sena said. "You make some suggestions, but the kids are doing everything themselves. They don't want the parents doing it for them. They have questions or they have thoughts, they want to run something by the advisors, they can do it. The advisors are not telling you what to do, because we didn't want another one of those clubs where the kids just sign up and put it on the resume and they don't do anything.”


It should not be surprising the club has decided to take a path because Watchung Hills SA/NJ Elite follows seven principles:

  • It's about players, not profit
  • It's about developing players with passion and purpose
  • It's developing model citizens, not just soccer players
  • It's acting with integrity and respect
  • It's helping players achieve their potential within a team environment
  • It's building teams that are greater than the sum of their parts
  • It's about education and community service

 
Hence, that's where core values come from.


"We didn't want to be another one of those clubs where the kids just sign up and put it on the resume and they don't do anything," Sena said. "We wanted them to really, really take charge for their group, and then they will have something to talk about when they go to their college, or complete their college applications. They will be able to talk about what they've done and what they haven't done, and this will be tangible versus 'oh I just signed up for this club and I didn't really do much.'"


At the moment, Watchung Hills  SA/NJ Elite and its players are doing plenty.