Father Luigi Esposito, pastor of Our Lady of Pompei in Highlandtown, has been an avid soccer supporter in the Southeast Baltimore community since 1964, when he arrived at the parish.
Over those 40-plus years, “Father Lou,” as he is fondly known, has coached the parish’s CYO soccer teams as well as the then-high school varsity team, always putting forth top athletes.
But times changed, area demographics changed, parishes closed and as a result, Catholic youth soccer programs folded in what once was a haven of soccer talent.
However, over the last several years, increased interest in the sport has resulted in its resurgence. At the center of it all is William Whitehurst.
In 1995, Mr. Whitehurst, a parishioner of Immaculate Conception, Towson, brought his oldest son to Patterson Park to play CYO soccer where Mr. Whitehurst had once played as a young boy.
“It was a way of giving him some exposure to the city and some sense of family history,” said Mr. Whitehurst.
While all four of Mr. Whitehurst’s children played in the Southeast Baltimore CYO youth soccer leagues, something more came out of his presence in and around his old stomping grounds.
Mr. Whitehurst, a vice president of investments for Ferris-Baker, Watts, Inc., took on the massive task of administering the soccer program.
Fast-forwarding to present day, the Friends of Patterson Park/Our Lady of Pompei-sponsored youth soccer program, known as the Baltimore Panteras, an open program for city residents, is thriving with youth clinics titled “Just for Fun” for 4-6-year-olds, in-house teams who play on a weekly basis at Patterson Park and the CYO travel teams who compete on weekends.
The program is currently serving hundreds of boys and girls who otherwise would not have an opportunity to compete or experience what it means to become part of a team.
Mr. Whitehurst has has lifted kids, parents and local businesses to experience the vibrancy that once was the hallmark of the Patterson Park corridor.
But Mr. Whitehurst is the first to say that this feat has not been accomplished alone.
Mr. Whitehurst credits Bob Meagher, and Jerry and Howard Beck who were on the scene to help in the early days; and now, with multi-year funding in place through the France-Merrick Foundation, U.S. Soccer Foundation and local businesses, Mr. Whitehurst has made his biggest connection of all – partnering with the Friends of Patterson Park and its executive director, Tim Almaguer.
Mr. Almaguer is a 30-year soccer enthusiast himself, and once approached by Mr. Whitehurst, the soccer program blossomed by tapping into current databases and e-mail lists held by The Park. The community responded as word got out to neighborhood families that soccer was returning.
With the diversity that abounds within the Southeast Baltimore neighborhoods, building bridges to grow the soccer program was like a breath of fresh air for many involved.
With no city-wide organization of physical education in Baltimore City schools (each principal sets standards for his or her own school, according to Vanessa Pyatt, spokeswoman for the Baltimore City Board of Education), Mr. Almaguer was concerned about the energy levels of the kids.
“It is very exciting to see soccer back in the park,” said Mr. Almaguer. “I truly believe that these types of activities and programs reduce juvenile justice issues, reduce childhood obesity and related ailments, improve self-esteem and develop positive social skills. In Baltimore it is either a baseball or soccer team, or it is a gang.”
As the program continues to grow, the focus remains on drawing kids onto the soccer field for a positive experience and for the enjoyment of the game. “It (soccer) gives them the opportunity to develop their bodies, and it’s a sport that is not hard to learn,” said Father Esposito.
All children are able to join the Patterson Park/Our Lady of Pompei soccer programs for free. The driving force behind the program’s success has been the dedication of parents and volunteers who give of their time and energy to provide this opportunity to young people.
Try-outs begin in mid-July and those 150 children who attended the spring clinic, along with the 60 returning players, will be the foundation of the fall program.