On Saturday mornings in Camden, dozens of kids haul themselves out of bed and lace up their cleats to run drills and kick soccer balls toward goal nets. Bleary-eyed parents line the bleachers, sometimes with younger siblings in tow, as they sip coffee and watch.
The routine is not new for members of the Camden Youth Soccer Club, which has been coaching local players on weekends for more than a decade. But last month, the league moved indoors for the first time, setting up shop in the pristine gymnasium of the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, the city's new community building on Harrison Avenue.
The fledgling partnership between the league and the Salvation Army-run facility allows the league for the first time to operate year-round, instead of in spring and fall only. Fifty boys and girls between ages 4 and 14 signed up for one of two morning sessions this winter, bringing the program to full capacity in its first year.
"There's no money out of our pockets at all," said Bryan Leib, 29, one of the league's volunteer coaches and a board member. "And here we are in a $90 million facility, in a gym that would have been sitting here empty today."
In addition to indoor soccer, other changes may in the air for the Camden league. In the fall, with support from the center, league organizers hope to start taking the players on the road as a traveling team to compete against other clubs in the area, said Demetrius Marlowe, recreation manager of the center and a former coach for the league. The league could host teams on the Kroc Center's mint-condition fields.
"Kids in Camden need to be playing travel soccer just like the kids in the suburbs," Marlowe said, surveying the winter players on a recent Saturday. "They have natural competitive instincts and we need to grow that, nurture that. Economics should not be the reason that some of these kids don't reach their potential."
With news of several large corporations planning to move to Camden, 2014 was a year of major developments for the city. But as Marlowe sees it, the new Kroc Center may be the biggest.
The 120,000-square-foot building was funded with a grant to the Salvation Army from the estate of Joan Kroc, heir to the McDonald's fortune. For minimal monthly fees - $25 for a family of four and financial assistance is available - it offers a food pantry, swimming pools, day care, a theater, classes in English as a second language, a health clinic, and more. When it opened in the fall in the city's Cramer Hill section, Marlowe saw endless opportunities for community collaboration. He started with the soccer team, as well as the Cramer Hill Little League, which now practices in the gym on Sundays.
The former principal of Camden's UrbanPromise Academy, Marlowe has spent most of his career working with student athletes and knows firsthand the role team sports can play in helping some students succeed.
"[The Kroc Center] is the most important thing to happen to Camden in a long time, and we need to always be aware of how we can make the best use of it," he said. "Our goal is to make wholesale changes in Camden, and this is what's going to help us do that."
The kids who take part in the Camden Youth Soccer Club come from all backgrounds, Marlowe said: some live in stable households where both parents work, some are classified as special education, some live in foster care or under state guardianship.
The club began in 2003, with close to 500 kids signing up. Those numbers have fallen since, but last year, the club served 200 kids during the spring and fall seasons. Divided into two age groups, club members play at North Camden's Pyne Poynt Park, where the fields overlook the river. The organization has long been seen as a haven for its players, 95 percent of whom come from Camden.
The league subsists largely on grants and fund-raising. Coaches are often former soccer players who hear about the league and are willing to help - this winter, two students from Cooper Medical School of Rowan University are on the sidelines.
Registering a new player costs $35, which covers the cost of a soccer jersey, shorts, shin guards, and socks. Returning players pay $10 per season, and many kids stay involved for years. On nice days, parents set up chairs and make a day of watching the games, Leib said.
Getting parents engaged has long been an uphill battle for Camden School District officials, but coaches such as Leib see a different picture: parents who make jerseys for their kids, drop them off on time every week, stay for practice, and talk with coaches. Marlowe gives a brief talk to parents after each practice, advising them on one recent Saturday to take away video games and TV for a few more minutes each day to help their kids build a longer attention span.
"I think that many parents, for such a long time, have not been able to get what they deserve from the schools," said Leib, who works in business development for the Philadelphia Soul arena football team. "I think some of them see soccer and sports as a way of getting to the next level, whether that's a scholarship down the road or just as a way of fostering a sense of teamwork when it comes to things that happen at school."
Lashanda Sharps Dean's son, Marvin Sharps, has been part of the team since he was 4. He's now 11, and even when the family moved to Pennsauken several years ago, he asked whether he could keep playing with Camden.
"You watch the kids grow up, you get to know the parents," Dean said. "I've seen it give him a sense of responsibility. On Saturdays, he's so excited to go, he pulls out his own cleats, gets his bag ready."
Getting the team on the road will take fund-raising, insurance, and a host of other details. Leaders of the league hope to make it official in time for the fall season. Marlowe wants players to see that there are cities, even states, beyond Camden. Leib wants to tap into the kids' competitive spirit, which he saw last year when the league partnered with Philadelphia's Kensington Soccer Club for a fund-raising event, and the Kensington and Camden kids went up against one another for a few games.
Often during the weekly scrimmages in Camden, the players huddle and decide on team names, even when competing against each other, Leib said. Usually, they pick animals, such as the Tigers.
"When they played Kensington," he said, "it was Team Camden."