Community MVP changes refugee students' lives through soccer

Derek Braun is a teacher at Columbus Global Academy, a middle and high school in the Columbus City Schools system. The Academy is home to almost 900 immigrants from about 50 countries, all of whom recently arrived in Columbus, are still learning English and adjusting to life in their new surroundings. About half of the students are refugees from Asia and Africa who have lived most of their lives in refugee camps.
“The biggest challenge is communicating," Braun says, "because a lot of the refugee families and the players on the team come from really diverse and different language and cultural backgrounds.”
The team Braun is refering to is the school's soccer team, a group of young, sprited athletes who grew up watching and playing soccer under sometimes very trying circumstances. Thanks to Braun's tireless efforts, they now have the opportunity to play for their school in a competitive youth league.
For his efforts to use soccer to make a difference, Braun has been nominated as Columbus Crew SC's Community MVP. He is competing in an MLS WORKS contest with 19 other MVPs from around the League for a $10,000 prize that would go to a charity of his choice. You can vote for him here.
Braun has worked at the school for almost five years, beginning as a teacher’s assistant, before becoming a long-term substitute and eventually a full-time teacher. He now spends his time at the school making a difference in the students’ lives, not only as their teacher but their coach as well.
“I was particularly excited about the opportunity to play the role as a coach,” Braun says. “I just have such fond memories of my own high school soccer experience. I played with Westerville South High School and being a part of the team really was pretty formative in helping me develop discipline in my life, comradery with my teammates, even developing some leadership skills playing that role on the soccer team. So I saw that with a lot of the players also.”
Braun is the reason his students are even able to participate on a soccer team in the first place. Columbus Global Academy was unable to have an official soccer team, so Braun arranged for the school to be represented in a local youth league. The school staff provided the funds to buy uniforms and pay the admission fee and helps Braun transport the students to the games on weekends.
“There were a lot of logistical challenges, like rides, communicating," Braun says. "Sometimes newcomer families don’t always have easy means of just being able to call a cell phone or use email.”
That makes simple things such as organizing games and practices a challenge. But with new families regularly joining the school and Braun’s eagerness to get them involved right away, the teacher turned coach finds ways to get it done.
“There was always a lot of enthusiasm from the players which made things a lot easier,” Braun says.
Off the soccer pitch, Braun strives to create the best learning experience possible for his students. And soccer has had an impact in the classroom, as well.
“I designed a classroom management strategy that was called ‘classroom teams with student leaders,’" Braun says. "The basic idea was that a classroom would be divided into two teams."
Braun developed a point system based on that known to soccer fans.
“You would earn three points if you won the team challenge, one point for a tie and zero points for a loss," he says. "I set the team structure up like a season so that different classroom teams would be playing each other, in a sense, playing against each other competitively for either performance on activities or the quizzes we would have weekly.”
Using methods encompassing the beautiful game, Braun has seen academic success and overall growth in his students.
“It's giving them a sense of responsibility, a role to play on the team, and developing a work ethic," Braun says. "I think a lot of discipline develops from being dedicated to being part of a team.”
Braun calls out one student in particular whose success playing soccer led him to excel in the classroom and graduate from Columbus Global Academy last spring.
“He really struggled academically, but knew that soccer was a real way that he could potentially gain scholarship money and go on to playing at a higher level," Braun says. "I think that drive to continue in soccer really helped him focus on his academic work in the classroom.”
Braun plans to follow-up with students as they continue their athletic and academic journeys after they leave Columbus Global Academy. In the meantime, he wants to continue making a difference in the refugee community in Columbus. He says winning the prize of $10,000 from the MLS WORKS Community MVP Contest would help drastically.
“I’d love to see the money go to World Relief Columbus, which is a refugee resettlement office here in Columbus that is newer to the area and is smaller than some of the other organizations,” Braun says.
“I’ve been really impressed with their work and have been volunteering with them for the last couple years doing after-school tutoring. They’ve recently looked at upgrading their office space and there’s a lot of opportunities that I know this money would go to good use in serving the refugee community here in Columbus.”

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