NEW YORK — It’s a summer Monday morning and there’s the usual buzz of activity in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
A jackhammer drills at a construction site on East 96th Street, horns blare from a bevy of cabs racing down 2nd Avenue. And in the middle of that incessant din lives a temporary soccer oasis whose financial support comes from D.C. United co-owner Al Tylis and the Tylis Family Foundation.
For three days a week for five weeks, Marx Brothers Playground serves as a sanctuary for underprivileged children ages 6-12 in the form of a free soccer camp.
Programming is run by Simply Sports, a local non-profit whose goal is to “support and engage emerging athletes to be successful both on and off the playing field,” and bankrolled by Tylis' charitable organization.
“For me, it's just sitting and watching, just seeing the kids smiling,” Tylis told MLSsoccer.com. “You look around, they're smiling, they're laughing, they're having a good time, they're outside, they're engaging, they don't realize it, but they're learning. And it's just seeing happy faces and feeling like you're doing something to contribute to that.”
Tylis watches from the sideline as often as possible. He stands out only because of his D.C. United hat.
It might seem strange that a co-owner of a club that is a rival of the nearby New York Red Bulls is funding a free soccer camp in Manhattan. That is, until you know Tylis’ backstory.
Tylis went from growing up in low-income housing in Coney Island, Brooklyn, to becoming a successful real estate executive. After selling his company, he formed the Tylis Family Foundation along with his wife, Kate, who played college soccer at Amherst.
“I appreciate what I had and how fortunate I've been,” the Manhattan resident said. “I view it as a requirement to give back in a meaningful way, and provide access to something that I couldn't do as a kid, something I probably would have loved to do given how much I love soccer at this point.”
Tylis’ daughter Maya and son Jake both play soccer, and Jake competes in programs run by Simply Sports, which Tylis viewed as the perfect organization to partner with for this particular initiative.
Formed 14 years ago by Jeff Bernstein, Simply Sports has a number of sports under its umbrella, but soccer has become the most popular.
“When Al proposed the idea, it fit right in with our mission statement,” Bernstein said. “We're always looking for opportunities to give back and and provide opportunities for everyone. It was a perfect fit.”
The most difficult part is convincing skeptical New Yorkers there is no catch to the free enrollment. Everyone who signs up for a session receives a free t-shirt, shin guards and socks. Those who join for four sessions also get a free soccer ball.
Currently, the camp draws kids from 70 different schools in four of the city’s five boroughs, Bernstein said.
“The kids that have been part of the program, they love it, the parents have had nothing but positive things to say about it,” Bernstein said. “The kids have the shin guards on every day, and they're in their shirts and they come ready to play. Most of them show up, grab a ball and start warming up before the coaches even start with them. That that shows that they're having a good time.”
Tylis, who is also part of the ownership group for English League Championship club Swansea City, is enthusiastic about expanding the program, saying he's “not great with the status quo.” The camp has already almost doubled in size in its second year, and he’d love to see that continue.
“That could mean geographically, but it could mean trying to do this more frequently,” Tylis said. An indoor program in the winter is one option.
Tylis and Bernstein have been impressed by some of the “raw talent” they’ve seen in the camp’s infancy. Some continue on through Simply Sports’ recreational program in the fall, while a few have competed in the organization's travel setup, thanks to additional financial assistance from the Tylis Family Foundation.
Is there perhaps a diamond in the rough, a future D.C. United player plucked from the middle of New York City?
“That would be cool. But the kids are 6-12, they’re young,” Tylis said. “The most important thing is just having fun, enjoying being active, hopefully loving the game, hopefully they contribute to other people loving the game and being engaged in the game. I think that’s the ultimate goal.”