A member of the Oak View Youth Soccer League prepares to kick during a recent league finals game. (Photo by Michael Connors)

Years ago, unruly adult scofflaws and their unofficial soccer league dominated the fields of Oak View Elementary School in Huntington Beach, Calif. Beer bottles and damaged turf were routinely left in the renegades’ wake.

Though sizeable at 10,000 people, the Oak View neighborhood in Huntington Beach is little known. Those who do know of it often associate it with the worst of times; murders were not uncommon there during the 80s and early 90s, and after the Rodney King verdict in 1992, the police substation was firebombed.

By the mid-90s, however, Oak View gradually began to change. A new community-policing model eventually prevailed in significantly reducing crime and gang presence. This relative stability paved the way for new community services to take hold, including a family resource center operated by the Children’s Bureau and a state preschool.

These gains emboldened neighborhood resident Jose Luis Rodriguez to take action in 2005 against the soccer transgressors. His son was 10 years old, and he envisioned a place-based, affordable league for him and other children. Established leagues in the area were prohibitively expensive for residents, most of whom still live at or below the poverty level.

Jose Luis, though not formally trained in community development, had a natural inclination toward collaboration: He appealed to the school principal for help to oust the unofficial league. From there, the district joined with the city to bar the league and make room for the new Oak View Youth Soccer League (OVYSL). Now nine years on, OVYSL has grown to include more than 700 children and has expanded to other fields in the city.

Jose Luis Rodriguez, founder of Oak View Youth Soccer League, stands among trophies that would be awarded during recent league finals. (Photo by Michael Connors)

In 2006, Jack Shaw, a retired vice chairman at Deloitte, founded Oak View Renewal Partnership (OVRP) to better coordinate collective impact in Oak View. OVRP’s first executive director helped Jose Luis professionalize the league. It’s been my pleasure to continue the relationship since 2009 when I came on as executive director.

We’ve continued to work closely with the school district and city, and we’ve brought in additional local, regional, and national partners to make the league one of the best in Southern California—at a highly affordable $14 fee per child per season. Partners include Boys & Girls Clubs, Chivas USA (a Major League Soccer team), Cal South (Southern California affiliate of US Soccer), local businesses, and family and corporate foundations.

One of the greatest impacts of the league has been on youth engagement and public safety. A 2010 survey by the Evaluation and Training Institute out of Los Angeles found that 98 percent of parents “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that OVYSL “keeps my child from engaging in risky behaviors.”

“The community seems more peaceful; there is less violence and gang activity,” typified comments in the write-in section of the survey. Parents also wrote that their kids were now living a healthier lifestyle thanks to the league. Comments such as “My children are active all week and are not thinking about eating and watching TV,” were common.

Jose Luis probably couldn’t have foreseen just how impactful the league would become. Like ripples building to a current, the initial actions of the league to address youth engagement and public safety have resulted in a stronger force altogether—what we might call “cross-issue impact.”

One example of cross-issue impact is academic achievement. Though causation is difficult to prove, we believe that the league may have played a role in the impressive growth of the Academic Performance Index at Oak View Elementary School. It has seen an 81 percent improvement—going from 421 in 1999 (the first year it was measured) to 760 in 2013. Research supports the link: A 2005 study in the Journal of Exercise Physiology Online, among others, indicates a consistent positive relationship between overall physical fitness and academic achievement.

Another example of cross-issue impact is adult leadership development: Jose Luis recruited neighborhood residents to coach and run the league. They have developed skills and gained confidence from these leadership experiences that have propelled them to other involvements at community cleanups, community forums, and city council meetings. Some league volunteers have even scored paid positions in the community: Examples include a young man who got a job at the local Boys & Girls Club and a woman who got a job at the elementary school supervising children.

Desegregation is yet another cross-issue impact. Because of its drastically different demographics, the nearly 100 percent Hispanic Oak View neighborhood was virtually cut off at its nadir from the rest of Huntington Beach. OVYSL has helped break down that isolation: Through word of mouth over the past five years, children from different ethnicities and neighborhoods have registered. The league is currently 5 percent non-Hispanic, and diversity is growing. Affordability aside, many are naturally drawn to the league by its growing reputation for offering the best competition around.

At this point, the league is thriving, and in the effort to help it succeed on its own, OVRP is helping it gain its own nonprofit status.

Perhaps the league’s greatest recent achievement is that it has sparked interest among other underserved communities in Orange County, which have reached out to potentially duplicate the model. With the right direction, Oak View’s success might just flow through these communities too.

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