Kickin’ It 615 providing opportunity to youth in North, East Nashville to learn soccer
Vanna Heath loves to win, but only when she can share victory with her friends.
The seven-year-old’s East End Prep school in the Inglewood neighborhood of East Nashville remains online and its sports teams are sidelined due to the coronavirus pandemic. Soccer charity Kickin’ It 615 is Heath’s only time to shine on the field and claim victory with friends she would’ve otherwise not seen.
“My favorite part about soccer is getting to make new friends and playing against other people,” Heath said after her second game of the season, Sept. 19. “I love to score goals and (love) when we get to win.”
Heath, whose two pigtail braids blow in the wind as she sprints up and down the field in her mustard yellow jersey, is one of 33 kids split between the Under-5 and Under-9 teams of Kickin’ It 615, playing in Mid State Sports’ eight-week youth soccer league at Frederick Douglas Park in East Nashville.
Kickin’ It 615 provides a safe space for kids in North and East Nashville to learn about the game, offering an uber-local soccer experience in two communities youth soccer is underrepresented.
And for Heath’s mother, Tiara, there’s another reason sustaining opportunity for years to come, despite the current challenges posed by COVID-19.
“It’s for free, for one,” Heath began. “It also gets the kids active. (Kickin’ It 615) teaches them the basics of soccer for free and they start off so little. (Vanna) has just been growing with them and she’s happy. It’s nice to give an outlet of a sport a lot of people (here) would never get to know about. A lot of people know football, basketball, but there’s not a lot of people out here offering soccer to everybody – and as a scholarship.”
Kickin’ It 615 — founded by Lexi Robinson and Valair Shabilla — is an evolution of Soccer For The Nations, a charity organization founded by Megan Evans in South Nashville in 2016 that aimed to offer soccer for Nashville’s refugee community.
Nearly two years later, one of Nashville SC’s supporters’ groups, The Roadies, took hold of operations when the charity was financially in danger. The charity was then moved to East Nashville. Robinson and Shabilla subsequently took over and are the outgrowth from Soccer For The Nations.
“We’re doing it because our mission is to help the children, not to produce the best soccer player,” Shabilla said. “We’re not an academy. We’re not a club. We’re a charity. And that’s our main focus — the children. And secondary is the soccer.”
Rather than placing the financial burden for its family participants to pay $150 per kid to play, Kickin’ It 615 hosts a plethora of fundraisers and has received local support from youth clubs Murfreesboro SC, Nashville United Soccer Academy (NUSA) and Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Fundraisers help pay for player fees, while the youth clubs have donated soccer balls, cleats and coaching handbooks. NUSA has also hosted coaching clinics for the charity.
And in times where money is short, Mid-State Sports has scholarships in place. Since 2013, the organization has provided adult and youth sports leagues in East Nashville. But for its youth sports, affordability has always been a pillar.
“We saw just a big need and a lot of families that were underprivileged that didn’t have a chance for their kids to play,” said Mid-State director of leagues Ben Young. “We wanted to have an affordable league and offer scholarships to kids so that everyone can play regardless of whether or not they have $150.”
Unlike most seasons, the problem in sustaining accessibility to soccer is two-fold in 2020. The coronavirus has seen Kickin’ It 615 oversee more than 50 kids in previous years to 33 in 2020.
For Mid-State Sports, Young said it’s conducting the fall league with 60 percent of participation, compared to its usual numbers. But Kickin’ It 615 Under-5 parent Javier Rodriguez, an emergency room doctor at Saint Thomas Midtown, believes the dwindling COVID-19 case count, mandatory temperature checks and social distancing is enough to play.
“I feel like I definitely have a pulse on the situation because I’m on the front lines, seeing these patients,” he said at his son Enrique’s game “…If I would have felt like the numbers were like how they were a month-and-a-half, two months ago, I think most of Nashville would have agreed that getting back to (youth) sports wouldn’t be a wise idea.”
Games end Oct. 24 for Kickin’ It 615. While Metro Nashville schools remain virtual, Frederick Douglas Park and East Park remain their social haven, safely playing soccer.
“At the end of the day, they just want to be kids,” Tiara Heath said. “It’s outside, so I trust it to be open with fresh air, instead of in an enclosed area. Just let them be kids.”
For stories about Nashville SC or Soccer in Tennessee, contact Drake Hills at [email protected] Follow Drake on Twitter at @LiveLifeDrake.