Kicking the notion: Fairhill gets a bad rap. But there’s a whole lot of good coming from an unlikely source

Inside the dimly lit gym of Clymer Elementary School, the patience of AC Fairhill head coach Dominique Landry is wearing thin.

Inside the dimly lit gym of Clymer Elementary School, the patience of AC Fairhill head coach Dominique Landry is wearing thin.

“Guys, I shouldn’t have to keep telling you to pay attention; to stop talking,” Landry starts after a long blow of his whistle. “We’re out here for you. If you don’t want to do this we’ll pack it up and go home.”

Landry is speaking to a collective of boys no older than 12, all in some form a part of the AC Fairhill youth soccer program, a passion project spearheaded by Landry to introduce the sport of soccer in perhaps the most unlikely of places here in Philadelphia.

On this night, Landry and fellow volunteer assistant coach Tom Johnson have no plans to pack anything up, but these boys don’t know that.

That sentence was all the words Landry needed to say.

The rest of the night goes off without a hitch.

The immense amount of respect for Landry and what he’s trying to do is not just apparent to the kids he’s trying to impart the skills that saw him walk-on as a Division I player at Saint Joseph’s University.

It’s because, in the after glow of flashing police lights and among senseless litter that seems to have no end, you’ll find Landry, bag of soccer balls slung over his shoulder, walking to some school, recreation center or community field. Nearly everyone in the community knows him solely as “Coach Dom” and respects that he’s out there day in and day out committed to giving Fairhill’s kids another outlet to not get caught up in the game.

“Ain’t nobody messing with Coach Dom out here, man,” said Kasib Ahmad, whose son, Kasib Jr., plays on Landry’s AC Fairhill under-11 travel team. “People respect him around here, he’s one of the few guys that truly cares for these kids, he’s out here buying them water, getting them snacks, hustling to get them uniforms. He’s a positive part of this community.”

Landry’s aspirations of growing grassroots awareness for soccer comes on a bit of a backfoot (no pun intended). Almost every player in the gym is being introduced to the sport for the first time, made apparent by the number of kids wearing high tops to kick a soccer ball on a gym floor made of hardwood. It’s apparent from wide-eyed soccer moms and dads on the sideline who admit they’ve never watched soccer before AC Fairhill came along. There’s still vague ideas of the rules, the construct and perhaps to some, the value.

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“[We] have kids that dropout, but we always welcome them back. I know how rough it is out here, but I also want these kids and these parents to know that the door for them to be a part of this team is always open.”

– AC Fairhill founder and head coach Dominque Landry

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“It’s not just coaching the kids, it’s coaching parents too about what soccer is,” said Landry. “They don’t know how their kid is going to develop because they aren’t accustomed to seeing the sport. We go play other teams and I feel like they look at us as being different. I don’t like that. So I think our goal as coaches with knowledge of the game is to educate the kids on the skill set and parents.”

To clarify, Landry offered this analogy. 

“For example [if] you played basketball, you probably grew up with [a family member] watching the NBA. You talked about it, knew all the players, and, at least to a certain extent, everyone has a clear understanding of the rules. Soccer is like teaching Greek. The parents don’t know what any of the [lingo] means so they don’t communicate that terminology to the kids. All they see is it as a valuable outlet, so I feel like it’s up to me to take it from there.”

Built for better things

A ride down Allegheny Avenue, the main arterial running through Fairhill, is rife with the usual trappings of constructs designed to keep people in systemic poverty.

Check cashing places juxtapose sneaker shops, budget mobile phone providers and fast food restaurants. It’d be cliche to say that there’s a beer store on every corner – but it is accurate.

It’s essentially the definition of oppression, and it feels almost by design.

A neighborhood that once boasted farmland and large country estates and manors is a far cry from its former wealth, as crime, drugs and poverty have taken over a section known to some simply as “The Badlands.” To cement the claim, a 2017 report from the United States Census Bureau depicted a jaw-dropping 61 percent poverty rate with the average household collecting a median income of just $15,979, the lowest in the city.

It’s probably one of the few sections of Philadelphia that hasn’t felt the nudge from rampant development and subsequent gentrification, which, for better or for worse, has left Fairhill to become Philadelphia’s forgotten section.

“It’s rough, man,” said Landry. “The stories I have from kids on this team are crazy. I have a kid whose grandmother was in jail, dad was in jail, mom was in jail, and he was living with his great aunt. His grandmother comes home and his aunt died. Mind you, this is all during the span of him being 7, 8, 9 years old. So you have kids that dropout, but we always welcome them back. I know how rough it is out here, but I also want these kids and these parents to know that the door for them to be a part of this team is always open.”

The kids who have continually walked through the door have found success. In fact, there are two athletes on Landry’s club who serve as proof that his desire to bring soccer as an element into Fairhill is a smart one. Two players, Kamil Johnson, 10, and Kasib Ahmad, Jr, 11, have been invited to take part in this summer’s Limerick Cup, an annual event at the University of Limerick in Ireland that brings youth players aged 15-and-under from all over the world to get a real-world look and experience at soccer on a global stage.

Johnson’s mom, Amanda Easley has set up a GoFundMe page in an effort to raise the funds for not just her son, but for the pair to get the experience that could set them on a path to bigger and better things.

“I’ve been looking for a mentor program, something for [Kamil] to do,” Easley said, who works as a coordinator for a manufacturing company. “I didn’t want him playing football…and honestly? I wanted him in something that a black kid from Fairhill would not be regularly involved in. His school offers no afterschool programs or sports at all, so without this program, I honestly don’t know what we would’ve done. My goal is to get him into a better school with a soccer program so he can have that experience. AC Fairhill will always be home and because of that spark he found here, Kamil is serious about soccer. It’s only right that I do all that I can to try and foster that.”

End goals

It’s winter and for the foreseeable future, Landry and his bag of balls, cones and whatever else comes to practice has a home inside the gym at Clymer Elementary. A club that started with just three kids has over 30 and is poised for expansion.

Ask him and Landry will tell you, it’s less about donating funds to help the team, although that’s greatly appreciated. For him, it’s a commitment of qualified bodies to foster the kids and help grow the program.

“Money’s great, but I need soccer people that understand kids,” Landry said. “I need behavioral counselors for when they check out to get them motivated, I need people that understand kids and what it takes for them to be their best self. I get a lot of kids in here that are coming in with all sorts of issues at home and when they check out, which is to be expected, yeah, it affects the whole group.”

But perhaps the biggest thing in goals (pun again, not intended) is for his kids to have a home field. Since its inception, AC Fairhill’s travel team has been nomadic, serving as the away side in all of its matches. Although, it’s found a practice spot at the 12th & Cambria Recreation Center. The space and private resources in funding to make it a solid home for the team and discussions are underway with officials at Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.

“From Day 1, the folks at the rec center have been like ‘mi casa, su casa,’” said Landry. “We’ve been using 12th & Cambria because we don’t have a home field, and even though we can’t play our home games there, it’s home, it’s in that 19133 ZIP Code. The kids that join our program get to play in their own neighborhood, have that sense of identity and pride, for better or worse.” 

PW reached out to Philadelphia Parks and Rec, who affirmed that it is in discussion with AC Fairhill as the duo smooths out the best possible placement.

“We have been meeting with and speaking with representatives for AC Fairhill, and we are working to find them short- and long-term space for their program needs,” was a response from Parks commissioner Kathryn Lovell-Ott on Tuesday.

At the end of the day, the hope is the kids who benefit from this initiative are truly considered in Parks’ decision. Kids like Kamil Johnson, who serves as proof there is a path to make it out of the “Badlands” if given the chance beyond the predisposed conventional routes.

“It helps me get better and to exercise and I do it with my mom now,” said a tired Kamil after his practice inside the gym/lunchroom at Clymer. “This is my favorite sport and I love soccer and I love [the] FIFA . I’m just really grateful for my family, my food, AC Fairhill and for Coach Dom.”

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    Kerith Gabriel is the editor-in-chief at Philadelphia Weekly but somehow hasn’t figured out that means he doesn’t have to write nearly as much. Journalism has been in his blood since his beginnings as a sports writer over a decade ago for the Philadelphia Daily News.