• ,

Voices on Violence: The power of a coach

Voices on Violence arose as a response to the Mother’s Day shootings in New Orleans that injured 20 people. Comprised of one-on-one interviews with a diverse group of residents, the series explores why and how people live here, how they assess risk, and what specific things they believe can help change the cycle of violence in New Orleans. Please join the conversation; send commentary, responses and interview suggestions to  [email protected].

Who: Eric Kugler is director of YLC Kicks, a youth soccer program sponsored by the Young Leadership Council and implemented through the New Orleans Recreation Department. A native New Yorker, Eric drove down after Hurricane Katrina and has spent the years since working with various rebuilding projects.

Screen Shot 2013-06-10 at 5.53.20 PM

YLC Kicks teaches life lessons through soccer.

Using soccer to change lives: It started with me and my friends six years ago. I lived then in the 6th Ward, near Parkway Bakery, and we’d play at local playgrounds. AP Tureaud was the first school we connected with. We showed up with two soccer balls to see what would happen. Initially, we were met with skepticism; people were saying, nicely, that urban kids don’t play soccer. But we brought the balls out and knew immediately that we were into a good thing. Whenever you open a bag of balls in New Orleans in front of a bunch of kids, at least 30 percent of them will come over. Soccer is a great way to make friends. A lot of things are important to stopping violence – environmental education, food access, youth and adult education, whatever. The voice I have uniquely comes from using a global sport -- not necessarily a well-known one -- and inserting a positive message into it immediately.

Futbol versus football: Historically, we look at a sport not necessarily as art or recreation, but as talent-specific. With (American) football, you look at the big kid and say, oh, he's gonna play this position. Soccer in New Orleans is under the radar; it has fewer preconceptions about it. And it’s a great way to be part of something bigger. It’s a great way to learn to get along, to learn problem-solving, within a framework of rules – for both boys and girls. Boys can be nonchalant about sports, but when a girl scores a goal, she'll say, 'Wow, look what I did,' and see immediately what she can accomplish.

Who rules: Being a coach in New Orleans is a really powerful thing. It carries weight. It's its own prefix.

Who else rules:  Strong, confident young women who learn how to interact with their peers on the field,  then use those lessons of respect and caring to help stop violence in this generation and the next.

How to measure success: We had a lot of kids come out (for YLCKicks): 280 kids registered, and then it dropped to half that. Retention can depend on being passionate about the sport or simply on having parents who will bring you and drop you off. Having NORD playgrounds open and available is clearly important for kids without support systems. So we’re giving them an on-ramp, through an accessible sport. If we reach five kids whose lives are absolutely changed, we’re successful.

The good, the bad: I love New Orleans for its passion, the way people love life here. The violence makes it not so good. I’m a bike rider, and every single turn is a decision. Do I go this way and risk getting hit by a car, or that way that’s personally dangerous? I’ve been mugged a couple of times. I see violence all the time. Working with schools, I see it. Dozens of incidents. Violence is part of the community I live in. It’s also part of the community the 8-year-old next door to me lives in.

Future imperfect: The violence is getting to me a lot more. I used to look at it as more of a social thing, but when you see it every day, it’s different. I see my kids getting used to it. There’s been both a shooting and an overdose at the park (where he coaches soccer). The kids didn’t flinch. Neither did I. Everyone else was freaking out. It’s very sad for me personally -- not to flinch. It's a terrible way to live.

If he could build something: It would be a big soccer field along the Lafitte corridor, at Galvez and Lafitte. It would have a kitchen, a garden, safe parking, lots of bike racks, fields for after-school play and lighted ones for late-night activities for adults.

Time lines: To fix things, we have to start now and continue for the next 10 years.

Voices on Violence: Conversations about life in New Orleans is a NolaVie/WWNO series that features individual interviews with the city’s residents. If you would like to be interviewed, or to comment on the series, email [email protected]

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]