Q&A: South Bronx United’s Andrew So

Andrew co-founded South Bronx United along with his wife in 2009. Prior to 2009 Andrew taught mathematics and special education at New Day Academy, a public secondary school in the Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx. He has worked with Bronx youth in various other capacities from counselor to advisor to soccer and basketball coach. He holds a USSF “D” coaching license and continues to coach South Bronx United travel teams.

Tell us a little about your background.

I grew up in San Francisco through middle school, and then I went to high school outside of Portland, Oregon.  I played all sports for fun, basketball, football, baseball, ran some track, but I only joined a competitive team for soccer.  My father, who is from Hong Kong, always followed soccer, but I didn’t start playing until I was 9 years old, which is late in comparison to kids now, and particularly children from immigrant families in the South Bronx who are born with a ball at their feet.

I founded South Bronx United while teaching math and special education at the middle and high school levels at a Bronx public school.  I continued to teach, then worked as my schools’ special education administrator and data specialist.  Last school year, I served as a math instructional coach at a few different schools, before finally being able to work full-time for South Bronx United. 

Tell us a little about South Bronx United.

South Bronx United is a youth development program that uses soccer to engage youth and then provides them with the supports they need to succeed academically, graduate high school, and make it to college. I founded the organization in 2009 to provide community youth with the chance to play travel soccer at no cost, unite a diverse group of youth into one organization, and provide the players with a mentor and a support network that most of them otherwise lacked.  I hoped soccer would expand the players’ high school and collegiate opportunities.  We quickly discovered that the kids’ passion for soccer opened the door for us to directly support them with anything they needed to be successful: academics, college prep, character and leadership, immigration issues, and problems at home and in their neighborhoods.  Now we serve almost 600 boys and girls each year.  This includes 130 middle and high school students in the SBU Academy who play travel soccer, attend after school tutoring, SAT prep, or college prep, and receive other support services from counseling to health clinic referrals to immigration support.

Why the focus on soccer?  

The South Bronx has a population of 660,000 people and rapidly growing communities of immigrants from West Africa and Latin America.  Yet, beyond local Hispanic leagues, there were no travel or recreational soccer programs in the South Bronx.  Within our Academy program nearly half of our participants were born outside of the United States and 95% are raised in immigrant families.  They come from families where soccer is already a huge part of their cultural identity.  Because of their passion for soccer, most youth already have a strong motivation to come to SBU’s programs.

And then, of course, it doesn’t hurt that soccer is my passion too.

What in your background prepared you to launch South Bronx United? How is it different than other sports programs? 

When I launched South Bronx United, I knew very little about fundraising and nonprofit development.  But my experience teaching and coaching in the community prepared me to develop programming that would engage and educate youth from diverse and often troubled backgrounds.

South Bronx United is a family.  We put education first.  We put more resources into education and support services than into the sport itself.  SBU youth represent over 30 different nationalities.

What do you look for when you hire a coach to work with kids?

We look for coaches who are understanding and empathetic for even the most difficult youth.  Someone who can be a mentor as much as a coach.  Someone who can command the respect of the youth. 

What is special about doing what you do in NYC?  

Transportation:  When I was growing up, my parents drove me everywhere.  Almost all of our kids must get to practices and meeting locations by themselves.  This is possible because of the city’s public transportation.  Working with the same low-income, immigrant population in another city or town might prove impossible if programming was not always within walking distance.

Diversity:  In terms of nationality, South Bronx United has an extremely diverse group of boys and girls so youth are always exposed to different cultures.  But, even more so, in the New York City area we have the opportunity to interact with people from any number of other nationalities and backgrounds both on and off the soccer field.

What are the particular challenges of doing what you do in NYC?

We’ve had more than a few incidents while trying to hold training sessions for our boys and girls on crowded public parks.  We may have a permit, but that’s not always easy to understand for other kids or even adults who come out on a nice evening to play.

Although public transportation is one of the greatest things about New York City, everyone knows it can also be the most frustrating.  We have had to forfeit a few soccer games because weekend train routes diverted and delayed teams.  It’s not just public transportation.  One year our U18 team was knocked out of a prestigious Brooklyn Tournament because they were stuck in gridlock traveling from the Bronx.  They arrived 10 minutes late to their final group game and the opponent refused to play.

What are you most proud of about South Bronx United and the work it does?

I’m proud of how we have provided a home for so many boys and girls, many who had nowhere else to turn.

You must have lots of great stories from your years working with kids. Tell us about one that inspired you?

We’ve had a few stories of kids overcoming a lot and ultimately succeeded.  Between the three here, couldn’t choose one.  Their individual drive is inspiring.

Kafoumba came home one day to find out that his father, his only immediate family, had been arrested by authorities for deportation.  He had been enrolled in a school that was in the process of being closed by the state as failing and, despite completing two years of high school in the Ivory Coast, very few credits were transferred.  He ultimately made up the credits, overcame his devastating family situation, and earned an academic scholarship to the University of Maine Farmington.

At age 16, Miguel left Honduras on his own, undertaking an incredible journey and overcoming huge obstacles to join his estranged mother.  Shortly after arriving, his mother, who he had just been reunited with, kicked him out because she did not support his desire to attend high school.   He found various distant relatives to live with and worked odd jobs to survive.  He had to drop out of school after two years, but is now on the path to completing his GED and attaining citizenship. (To read more about Miguel click on this NY Times article.)

Kebba was sent with a one-way ticket to Atlanta from his hometown when he was just 16.  His parents sent him to live with a family friend whom he had never met.  He graduated high school but never could return home.  He moved to the Bronx on his own at 18 and joined South Bronx United.  It was his ultimate dream to attend college, which he did in 2012, with absolutely zero family support since he was 16.

Do you still play sports yourself? If so, what and where?

I used to play pickup soccer every Saturday and in various men’s leagues, and occasionally even some basketball.  And then my wife and I had kids.

What was the best advice you got from a coach?

This is the most memorable advice, not necessarily the best:  “When you are too tired to run any more, just lean forward.  Your legs will take over and keep running.  [If not, you will fall flat on your face.]”

Do you root for professional teams?

I grew up loving the Golden State Warriors, SF Giants, 49ers, and Sharks, and I still do.  Somehow, the Yankees have grown on me a bit since we are in such close proximity.  I have inevitably followed the Red Bulls, too, but am still waiting for their breakthrough year.

What is your favorite sports venue in New York City and why?   

Red Bull Arena.  One of the best soccer venues.

Favorite sports movie?  Victory, starring Sylvester Stallone and Pele.

Best sports memory?

Watching the 1994 World Cup in Foxboro, Mass.  I was 12 and saw five games, including an over-the-hill Diego Maradona.  But oddly, the biggest impression was shaking hands with Former President George H.W. Bush and Hakeem Olajuwon who both walked by our seats.  The fact that I met two hugely famous people indicated to me just what a huge deal the World Cup was.

 

If you’re not out playing sports what do you enjoy doing?

Coaching or playing with my sons.

 

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