Breaking the Cycle Using Sports as a Powerful Vehicle for Positive Change

Serving over 90 youth representing over 35 countries, Tillie’s Touch is a space where all children can connect, play and bond with one another through a mutual love for soccer.

“Education is that key to success,” says Dale Johnson, founder and director of Tillie’s Touch. The organization, founded by Johnson and his daughter in 2009, provides children with resources to help them succeed in sports and academics.

Inspired by his upbringing in local youth sports, Johnson saw firsthand how the community needed a positive change. “As a coach, I saw children come to games without proper footwear or show up for practice without any equipment. I realized something needed to be done for them,” he said. “It became a priority of mine to help them make their dreams of playing a sport possible.”

That’s how Johnson’s idea of Tillie’s Touch came to fruition. The organization sponsors several soccer club leagues for children ages K-12 ensuring each child has what they need to succeed, whether that be through programming or physical resources. Since its establishment, Johnson has collected and donated lightly used soccer equipment to more than 1,400 youth each year. “I want to give kids the opportunity to play sports who may not have the chance if it weren’t for this organization,” he said.

Discriminatory urban planning and housing policies and other racial inequities have contributed to low-income neighborhoods where families work hard to make ends meet. Tillie’s Touch aims to level the playing field for the Children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds children living in poverty in those neighborhoods by providing them with hygiene products, backpacks and books, in addition to sports equipment.

Living on a low income consequently affects a child’s ability to succeed in school. Children living in poverty are not exposed to the same learning opportunities as their wealthier counterparts and can experience lifelong effects from the disparity. With schools largely funded by property taxes, education inequities cause this problem to persist in low-income neighborhoods.

Johnson kept these disparities top of mind as he established Tillie’s Touch by ensuring access to resources and support to help set children up for success. “It is of the utmost importance that the youth within our organization achieve academic excellence,” he said. “The educational requirements for the travel teams are strict, and players must maintain passing grades to remain eligible to play. The kids that we work with – they all live under that poverty line, and we feel very strongly that education is the ticket to get out of poverty.”

The organization holds weekly reading nights, offers tutoring in a wide variety of subjects and hosts giveaways of school supplies and book donations. Johnson hopes to get youth excited about their academics while giving them an escape from their everyday lives through soccer.

With the support of a grant from our Community Fund, Tillie’s Touch created a community center on Syracuse’s Northside. The center serves as a space to hold soccer practice, academic tutoring and many other community-based services. “This center is more than just a soccer turf,” said Johnson. “It’s a place where all walks of life come together to break that line of poverty using sports as a powerful vehicle for positive change.”

Johnson stressed that the mental and emotional well-being of the youth participating in Tillie’s Touch programming is integral for their success. He strives to foster an inclusive, safe and motivating environment where children can build friendships, focus on their mental health and grow academically – providing endless opportunity to local youth.

“Going to school, getting good grades, and then ultimately graduating high school and then moving on to higher education, trade school, military, whatever. That’s the ticket,” he said. “But soccer’s not going to do that. Soccer’s not going to put food on their table at the end of the day. However, soccer can be that vehicle that inspires those kids to go to school and create their future.”

Serving over 90 youth representing over 35 countries, Tillie’s Touch is a space where all children can connect, play and bond with one another through a mutual love for soccer.

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