18 July 2017

Gang violence and gun crime hold the East Harlem Community of New York City in their grip. To get vulnerable young people of the streets and away from harm through sport, the charity 'City in the Community' initiated the programme 'Saturday Night Lights'. We meet 17-year-old participant Stephen Lee Costa. The only shooting he does is on the pitch. 

 

New York. The city of 8.4 million people with a combined wealth of over $300 billion is commonly referred to as the world’s capital for the ultra rich. While the metropolis is recognized for its cultural wealth, economic prowess symbolised by skyscrapers stretching proudly into the clouds, and iconic tourist attractions, another image reveals itself beneath the city’s glossy veneer. This is where the hidden side of New York City lies with its thousands of stories, many of which remain untold.

 

Nestled in the corner of one of the world’s most bustling and thriving city lives a community of immigrants, refugees and those looking for a better life. We had the opportunity to take a look into a community yearning for change and demonstrating true resilience. East Harlem, more commonly referred to as “El Barrio,” quite simply “the neighbourhood,” is comprised of residents from across the globe, a diverse melting pot of cultures, over 50% of its total population is of Hispanic descent. The neighbourhood’s energy is electric, on every block or store front there is a different cuisine and culture represented.

 

We had the pleasure to talk with Stephen Lee Costa, a 17-year old young leader from ‘City in the Community' (CITC), the charity proudly supported by New York City FC. Stephen is involved in CITC’s Saturday Night Lights (SNL) programme, a violence prevention and youth-development programme in East Harlem that is funded by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. New York City has the biggest public housing authority in the United States and East Harlem hosts the second highest concentration of public housing projects in the nation. These housing complexes breed some of the city's most violent gangs. In one of New York City’s most complex and diverse neighbourhoods, CITC is using football to provide safe places to play during times when crime levels are at the highest.

 

Stephen’s face lights up when he replays one of his first – and certainly his favourite – football memory in his mind. He was a shy 5-year-old and had recently transferred to a brand new elementary school where he knew no one and mainly kept to himself. During his first week, he found the gym down the hall from his main classroom. He immediately took the ball out of his backpack and began to kick around. Slowly one, two, then five of his peers joined him on the pitch. Stephen recalls that moment as pure “freedom.” It was the first time he felt that a football pitch could be a safe haven. This theme continued throughout his life.

 

11 years later, today Stephen now stands tall at 5’11 and has played in more gyms, fields, and concrete corners of New York City than he can even remember. While most things in his life have changed, one thing has stayed the same - the football field is his refuge.

 

Even though he is no longer building a community in his elementary school gym, a similar story is unfolding 10 blocks north in a gym in East Harlem. Stephen is a regular at 'Saturday Night Lights,' a crime and gang prevention programme targeted at 11-18 year olds living in the East Harlem community.

 

At the core of the programme, football sessions are offered on Friday and Saturday nights, peak times for the city’s crime rate. It also hosts a variety of support and wrap-around services off the pitch centred on developing the participants’ physical, emotional, and social skills. Stephen describes his SNL community by mentioning that his friends there come from Mexican, Ecuadorian, Puerto Rican, and Yemeni backgrounds. Stephen reflects that many of his peers from school are divided by race or by housing projects, but that the culture of SNL is a refreshing contrast to the realities existing outside the gym. Stephen shares that: “We are all one. We are a family; there is no other way to put it. When you walk in the gym you just feel it - it’s good vibes all around.”

 

For the entire duration of his life, Stephen has lived two blocks away from the front door of SNL. His home is an apartment that he shares with his sister, his mother and father. Besides football, he claims that his family is his "rock." Stephen shares stories about his mother and how he wants to succeed in life to bring a smile to her face.

 

Stephen used to be closely connected to life on the streets but once he joined the football programme he learned that there is a positive community beyond the projects, one comprised of football lovers just like himself. “I’d rather be here improving myself, than be out on the streets. These streets aren’t going to lead you nowhere,” he says earnestly. 

 

On a Friday in March of 2016, this message rang loud and clear for the SNL community. Just as the programme opened its doors on a crisp early Spring day, a teenager, Stephen’s friend since elementary school, was shot in the head - simply because he walked through the wrong housing complex. The shooting was just steps away from the SNL programme site.

 

The tragedy shook Stephen and the whole of SNL to the core. It came as a reminder that there is much work to be done and underlined the importance of having safe spaces, especially during times in the week when teenagers are most vulnerable. Sadly, this is not a one-off story in the East Harlem community, but Stephen is using this incident as fuel to continue on his track to success. “I am doing the opposite. I see the struggle of my peers in gangs and that is my motivation to get out of the hood. Football has made me push forward.”

 

There is another type of brotherhood in East Harlem, one that is disconnected from the crime and gang affiliations flooding the housing complexes throughout the neighbourhood. Stephen compared the SNL community as a positive gang, a gang that empowers you to do better and be a better person: “You grow with your teammates. You get better together. These people are my blood. Every single touch and laugh, I cherish every single moment.”

 

With mentorship, college readiness programming, and top notch football sessions Stephen jokes about being part of a gang he feels proud of, one that actually holds true to its promises and has his best interests at heart.

 

Stephen is now entering into his senior year of high school and plans to play soccer in college starting in Autumn of 2018. Just as he did when he was a 5-year-old just beginning elementary school, Stephen dreams of becoming a professional soccer player. He plans to study Psychology in college, as he is interested in learning more about the human brain. Stephen hopes to be able to better understand what triggers people's emotions and causes them to react in certain ways. Stephen is paving his own way to success, and is committed to not veering off the track and to staying on the road leading him forward.

 

This article appeared in FOOTBALL4GOOD Magazine Issue 3/2017. Read more here.