From repping DC SCORES on their jerseys to performing at poetry events, Washington Spirit players have stepped up to support poet-athletes through an official partnership between the club and DC SCORES.
When she’s not winning trophies with the U.S. women’s national team or scoring goals as a striker with the Washington Spirit, professional soccer star Ashley Hatch can often be found representing DC SCORES at community events around the District.
Hatch, a DC SCORES board member since August 2022, says her favorite moments with the nonprofit are when she gets to visit its elementary school programs. “I love playing soccer with the kids,” she says. “The boys dominate the playground and they are shocked that a girl can play soccer professionally. But the best part is to see the girls’ excitement when another girl shows up and plays soccer.”
Hatch is just one of numerous Spirit players and staff members who support DC SCORES through the club’s official community partnership with the organization. From providing hundreds of sports bras to poet-athletes who need them to promoting DC SCORES on the club’s 2022 Challenge Cup jerseys, the Spirit has been making an impact on communities and raising the profile of professional women’s sports in DC.
Now, as the club prepares for its first season in which all home games will be played in the District, the Spirit is looking to expand its reach in the city even further. “We want to be a voice for women’s sports in DC and to fight for our community,” says Spirit Community Relations Manager Zoe Wulff of the partnership. “We want to show up for the city that we live in.”
Weathering the Pandemic
DC SCORES and the Spirit announced their partnership in April 2020, basing their memorandum of understanding on the official partnership agreement between DC SCORES and MLS club D.C. United, which launched in 2015.
At the time, both organizations were contending with the upheaval of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. For DC SCORES, that meant ensuring that children didn’t drop out of afterschool programs.
Across the United States, girls’ participation in sports significantly declined during the pandemic, making DC SCORES’ collaboration with the Spirit even more critical. “In many ways, we launched our partnership at the perfect time,” says Katrina Owens, Executive Director of DC SCORES. “We were able to provide our poet-athletes with all these great opportunities to engage with powerful women role models, right at a moment when girls were more likely to drop out of sports and other out-of-school activities.”
Spirit players Jordan Baggett (left) and Gaby Vincent (right) with Coach Wells, a DC SCORES coach at Washington School for Girls, during a coach appreciation visit to the school.
In that first year, Spirit players packed equipment kits for poet-athletes participating in the SCORES At Home virtual program, donated their third-place winnings from the Verizon Community Shield to DC SCORES, and hosted a drive-in watch party to benefit the nonprofit.
Since then, the two organizations have been drawing on their combined strengths to ensure that DC SCORES continues to serve thousands of kids in DC. “The Spirit’s reach is generally so much bigger than what one nonprofit organization’s is going to be. But every nonprofit is the expert in what they do. When we can trust that, we work well together,” says Wulff.
When in-person DC SCORES programming and events returned, the Spirit was present at every single engagement, serving as sponsors for the nonprofit’s major fundraisers and ensuring player representation at community events including Fall Frenzy and poetry slams.
Hatch demonstrates good striking technique during an adult soccer clinic she hosted in March to raise money for DC SCORES. Photo: Lily Damico for District Sports.
Serving Girls in the District
At the heart of the Spirit’s work with DC SCORES has been an explicit commitment to support girls in the DMV who play soccer. Spirit players have served as surprise guest coaches for girls teams’ during DC SCORES game days and provided exclusive pre-game pep talks to the girls’ teams that reached the 2022 Capital Cup championships last November.
Additionally, for the last year, the Spirit has been leading an effort by the Washington Coalition of Women’s Professional Sports and Leveling the Playing Field to collect thousands of sports bras for young players in the DMV, including DC SCORES poet-athletes.
“Sports bras are simple, but they bring up a bigger conversation about the barriers to playing sports faced by girls,” says Wulff, who explains that lack of access to sports bras is a consistent reason girls drop out of sports, with the most significant decline in participation occurring around puberty.
Spirit players packed hundreds of sports bras for DC SCORES poet-athletes last season.
Not only does the Spirit make a material difference by providing vital funds and equipment to keep girls playing, but by demonstrating that they care about women’s empowerment the club’s players can show young girls that they are valued says Hatch.
“It matters. I think it’s huge,” she stresses. “If girls don’t see other girls succeeding and playing at the highest level, then how can they see themselves doing the same?”
“The Kids Inspire Us”: Impact Off The Field
Despite playing at the highest level of professional soccer, Hatch says that the biggest achievement of her career has been to serve as an inspiration to young girls in the sport. “Being able to interact with young players who want to be us one day, to play professionally, those small moments are when I feel the proudest,” she shares.
Giving players opportunities like these, when they can have an impact off the field, is one of the most important aspects of the Spirit’s community relations strategy says Wulff.
“A lot of athletes are told that [their athletic ability] is the piece that matters, the piece that’s valuable,” remarks Wulff. She explains that players are expected to uproot their lives to progress in soccer and take on grueling training and playing schedules that leave little room for life outside the sport.
She adds, “In community relations, we can really step in and say, ‘we don’t care what you do on the field or who you are to everybody else, we can help you find a connection where you are and find meaning outside of your sport.’”
Vincent performed original poetry at One Night One Goal last October. Photo: Cody Cervenka.
It is partially for these reasons that DC SCORES poetry programming is so popular with Spirit players. Last year, members of the squad presented the prizes for performance at DC SCORES’ first in-person poetry slams since the pandemic, and Gaby Vincent, who was then a midfielder for the Spirit, performed her original poetry at DC SCORES’ annual fundraiser gala, One Night One Goal.
“Being able to show up and listen to poet-athletes on stage is pretty unreal,” says Hatch. “They’re so brave. As much as I feel like we inspire the kids, they also inspire us.”
“I don’t think you can understand the importance of DC SCORES until you see the poetry side,” adds Wulff. “It’s the way that kids in DC SCORES are taught to express themselves, to work together, and reimagine their future.”
Expanding in DC
Just like DC SCORES poet-athletes, players and staff at the Spirit are contemplating their own impact in the District. 2023 will mark the club’s second season under the ownership of Michele Kang, who made history last March when she became the first woman of color to own a team in the National Women’s Soccer League. This year, for the first time, the Spirit will play all their home games at Audi Field in new-look kits with a rebranded color scheme and crest marking the new era of the club’s history.
Spirit players Marissa Sheva, Maddie Elwell, and Anna Heilferty give a pep talk to poet-athletes from School Without Walls ahead of their championship game during the Capital Cup in November.
The Spirit’s new direction, however, is represented by more than just the stadium move and fresh branding, says Wulff; it is an exciting opportunity for the Spirit to expand its footprint through its partnership with DC SCORES. “We’re going to grow, we’re going to develop, but to be able to continue to back that up with care and genuine community building, that’s massive,” she says.
“The Spirit has really big ideas, but when it comes down to it, it’s all about working with people, being a part of the community,” Wulff continues. “We show up for our players, we show up for our fans, and we show up for our community. That’s where our place is.”