Faced with three young African immigrants who were struggling in school, Lauren Mednick found the key to begin unlocking their academic potential: a soccer ball.
Now, over three years later, Mednick leads a “family” of 14 young men from eight different countries. She’s created an undefeated soccer team that plays together and hits the books together too, transforming their lives in the process. Her players are finding success in soccer, joining elite athletic programs; and in academics, entering a prized private school.
The heart of the process is a weekly soccer practice followed by a team study session. But Mednick devotes herself to the team around the clock. She is in constant contact with her players, providing rides, tutoring, mentoring, coaching, friendship, and help in any way she can.
On a recent Monday evening, Mednick’s team, the Elm City Internationals, gathered for its weekly practice on the basketball court at the John Martinez School on James Street in Fair Haven. It was the day after the Internationals’ regular indoor soccer game at CFC Arena in Hamden, where the team has not lost a game in three years.
Two teams of teenage boys in orange and yellow pinnies played on the court, firing on small nets at each end. Gene Bertolini, who helped start the team and coaches with Mednick, shouted criticism and encouragement from the bleachers: Mark up! Find your man!
The team has players from Liberia, Guinea, Somalia, Afghanistan, Jamaica, Mexico, and Chad. The 14 boys are mostly 15 or 16 years old.
Mednick, who’s 26, stood by the door. Dodging the occasional soccer ball, she explained how the athletic/academic program came about.
It all started about three years ago when Mednick was working as an afterschool teacher for Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), an East Rock organization that helps support immigrants and refugees in New Haven. Three eighth-graders often ended up in her class due to behavior problems. Mednick found she was spending so much time on those problems that she had no time to teach them.
Mednick hit upon a common interest—soccer. Mednick, a New Haven native, has been playing since she was 10 or 11. The three boys, Mu’ammar Camara and brothers Abraham and Andrew Bartoa from Guinea, grew up playing the sport. They became the first three players on the Elm City Internationals.
“Within a month or three weeks they just became different people,” Mednick recalled. Playing soccer may have been “one of the first times they had felt adequate” since coming to a strange new country, she said. “Within weeks their attention totally turned around. ... Literally they went from D’s and F’s to A’s and B’s.”
“Those three boys were my inspiration,” she said.
Mednick got together with Bertolini, who had been coaching a group of immigrant kids for a few years. With the help of New Haven Youth Soccer, they put together a team of boys from Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. The idea was to use soccer as a tool for academic mentoring.
“I had no idea how successful a soccer team they’d be,” Mednick said. “The mission definitely wasn’t to create a top-notch team.”
Nevertheless, that’s what’s happened. In three years of play at an indoor soccer league in Hamden, the team has never lost, although they have experienced a couple of ties.
Meanwhile, grades continue to improve on the team, thanks to generous tutoring by Mednick and volunteers in groups and one-on-one.
At practice following the latest tie, Bertolini spent a few minutes discussing proper offense and defense for corner kicks. But that was the extent of coaching on tactics or technique. The remainder of the 90-minute practice was devoted to eight-minute scrimmages.
Bertolini and Mednick, along with two other volunteer coaches, fielded a coaches team for a couple of games. They found themselves largely outgunned and climbed back into the bleachers dripping with sweat.
On the sidelines players joked together and shared Oreos. On the court they raced for the ball and shouted, mostly in English, with an occasional cry of “Atras!” from a Latino defender looking for a pass.
After an hour and a half, the team abruptly and efficiently switched gears.
“Grab your books. Let’s move quickly,” Mednick announced.
The team filed into the nearby cafeteria, where they spread out at a half-dozen lunch tables and began schoolwork. The transition from athletics to academics was seamless, without objection or complaint from any player. Mednick said no one ever tries to skip out on studying after playing. Partly that’s because she and the other adult volunteers give so many of them rides. But it’s also because of the cohesion of the team.
“At this point, it’s more of an extended family,” Lauren said.
That sentiment was echoed, without prompting, by several of the studious soccer players.
“It’s just like a family,” said Teodoro Garcia, a 17-year-old sitting with several other Mexican-American boys.
“She, like, cares about us, like, a lot,” Facinet Haidara (at right in photo), Mu’Ammar’s cousin, said about Mednick. “She’s like second mother.”
Mu’ammar (at left in photo) recalled how he had called Mednick for help on a science project. She picked him up and they went to a coffee shop to work on it. “I got a B plus on it.”
“It’s kind of a family thing,” said 16-year-old Sergio Olmedo.
Olmedo was working with Bertolini on research on the American response to the Industrial Revolution for an assignment due Wednesday. He also had to revise a Macbeth essay. That workload is new for Olmedo this year, his first at Hopkins School. He started as a sophomore in the fall thanks to help and encouragement from Mednick, a Hopkins alum.
Olmedo, who came to the U.S. from Mexico seven years ago, when he was 9, is driven to succeed. He said that while he doesn’t get a lot of sleep because of all his school work, he aspires to politics or business. How far does he want to go? “I don’t want to set limits.”
In addition to his schoolwork, Olmedo is deep into lobbying effort to urge U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal to help pass the DREAM Act. He’s collecting letters from friends and acquaintances and he’s trying to convince New Haven school principals to let him speak to school assemblies on the subject.
Olmedo said his dad and mom, a car detailer and a factory worker, approve of his involvement with the Elm City Internationals. They like it because “it’s not just about playing soccer. It’s about becoming a better person,” he said.
Across the cafeteria, Mednick was helping Abraham Bartoah. He still joins the team on Mondays, but not as a player since he signed with South Central Premier, an elite “Academy” team under the U.S. Soccer Federation.
That opportunity could lead to college scholarships, or even a professional soccer career. It also means access to other opportunities that have particular significance for Bartoah, like traveling to Arizona for tournaments, staying in hotels, and eating at nice restaurants, Mednick said.
After an hour of school work, the weekly practice and study hall was over, but Mednick’s week with the team was just beginning.
“I definitely have contact with half of them every day and meet at least one of them every day for few hours,” she said later. Another day that week, she found herself tutoring Bartoah. Then Olmedo called and they headed over to support him at his wrestling meet.
“Abraham I spend a tremendous amount of time with,” she said. Bartoah has “a lot of opportunity because of his soccer skills, but he need to get his academics up to par” so that he can make use of those opportunities, Mednick said.
Mednick, who earned a masters degree in International Education and Development from NYU just a few weeks ago, is able to devote much of her time focused on the members of the Elm City Internationals. And she does.
Mednick raises money for team uniforms and league dues through donations and fundraisers. She’s organized a fundraising tournament at Benjamin Jepson school for Friday. In addition to fundraising, games, practices, and tutoring and rides, Mednick plans out-of-town trips and organizes the players to run in road races.
“It’s really a lot. I try to not call them my sons, but my younger brothers,” she said. “I feel like I am on call 24/7.”
“Honestly, I really love doing it. I can’t complain. I’ve always loved working with young people. I never really saw myself working with adolescent boys,” Mednick said. “That just came about because of how we were able to connect through soccer. I do believe it’s having tremendous impact on them.”
For now, Mednick’s total devotion means that she can’t work on expanding the program. She would like to do more with athletics and mentoring in the future, to reach more young people, but it will have to wait until the teens now on the team graduate and move on. Expansion would mean a more administrative role for her, she said, and she’s not willing to lose the day-to-day contact with the team members.