NESA combines soccer with healthy living lessons for youth


James Elementary School students show off their soccer skills during a NESA practice. Leslie Collins

By Leslie Collins
Northeast News
March 28, 2012

Pssst. Check out our video of the soccer players in action at

Noise echoed through the gym as teammates cheered and youngsters practiced their footwork, racing to the goal.

Through Northeast Sports Alliance (NESA), James Elementary students are learning more than soccer skills, they’re learning the importance of nutrition, too.

“When we originally took this on, it was let’s get the next great soccer player out of it, let’s see what they’re capable of doing at a higher level,” said Raul Cobos, NESA technical director. “What we’ve learned is kids show up to the park Saturday morning with a Coke and Cheetos, so a lot of our focus has gone to the lifestyle aspect of it.”

Before every soccer practice, first through sixth graders spend one hour learning about health and nutrition through NESA’s partner, Mattie Rhodes. Mattie Rhodes’ staff lead lessons from the program, “Eating from the Garden,” which teaches children about properly preparing fruits and vegetables, as well as how eating healthy and staying active affects the body.

One recent lesson for fourth through sixth graders outlined nutrients the body needs, like carbohydrates, vitamins, protein and fats. Each lesson includes samples of a fruit or vegetable and creative ways to incorporate those items into meals or snacks. When the students first tried radishes, they were hesitant, said Mattie Rhodes Social Worker Katie Davies.

“It’s something they’ve never seen; it’s weird,” she said of their reaction.

Then, when the Mattie Rhodes staff added a hint of lime and tahini paste to the radishes, the students requested seconds.

“It’s a fun way to teach them,” Davies said. “Hands-on is always a better way to learn. It’s making it (fruits and vegetables) accessible.”

Asked what he’s learned during the health and wellness classes, sixth grader Jose Portillo said, “I’ve learned what I should eat, so I can stay fit for soccer.”

That includes vegetables, grains and fruits, he said. As a result, he’s trying to eat healthier, he said.

Both Cobos and NESA Director Nick Garcia are hoping to expand the NESA program once the soccer park at 9th and Van Brunt is complete. Park amenities will include an all-weather sports turf for tournament play, two practice soccer fields, a walking trail, paved parking lot, concession stand with restrooms and an amphitheater for community events.

“I want it (park) to be a place where people feel comfortable and take pride in the neighborhood, not a place people can dump trash and throw beer bottles,” Garcia said.

Garcia added that NESA has volunteered to assist the city’s parks and recreation department with maintaining the park and soccer fields. If all goes as planned, NESA soccer players will begin playing on the fields April 9.

Garcia and Cobos also want to begin hosting soccer tournaments at 9th and Van Brunt and invite teams from around the Kansas City metro.

“There’s going to be nothing like it in Kansas City,” Garcia said of the park. “I think people are going to have a true sense of community and they can play soccer morning, noon or night.”


James Elementary School students show off their soccer skills during a NESA practice. Leslie Collins

Quotable Quotes:
“I like being goalie because people are constantly kicking the ball at the goal and it’s fun to just hit it with your hands. You get the liberty to do that and the pride of probably leading your team to victory.” – Jose Portillo, sixth grade

“You need to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables because it helps you learn.” – Roblando Zapien, sixth grade

“We get to do fun stuff and eat healthy stuff.” – Lisa Bui, fourth grade

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