Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2006 | People

A Great Save: Jim Dower and Daniel Isherwood

By Angie Toomsen

More than 4,000 children live in Chicago's Cabrini-Green public housing project, one of the largest and poorest residential developments in the nation. In such a tough environment, many of them skip school, drop out, or seek a sense of belonging in street gangs.

Jim and Dan Through their soccer program, longtime pals Jim Dower (right) and Daniel Isherwood teach inner-city kids the value of an education.

Shortly after their graduation from the University of Iowa, lifelong friends James Dower, 02BA, and Daniel Isherwood, 02BBA, accepted jobs at Byrd Academy, one of Cabrini's roughest schools. There, they sensed unspoken cries for support and encouragement from their students. Dower and Isherwood determined that the answer required more than they could do in the classroom, so they established Urban Initiatives (www.urbaninitiatives.org), a nonprofit before- and after-school soccer club that teaches first- through fourth-grade kids the value of teamwork, goal-setting, and responsibility.

"If you want to instill these values, you have to reach kids at a young age," says Dower, who met Isherwood when they were both 14 years old on an intramural soccer team at Chicago's Loyola Academy High School. "We couldn't afford to wait for the [educational] system to be fixed."

Dower and Isherwood still substitute teach, but their expanding soccer program demands more time and energy every day. When the two first established Urban Initiatives in 2002, they coached 12 kids. Today, they serve 140 children and four Chicago schools, oversee a board of directors and several volunteer coaches, and carry a "to do" list almost as long as a soccer field.

Young athletes in the club train hard, practice good sportsmanship, and eat healthy breakfast foods and snacks while learning to read nutritional labels. Their teachers also fill out "Work to Play" forms to track each participant's school attendance and performance. If students ditch class, they can't play. "We want these children to take their health and education seriously," says Isherwood. "Soccer is our hook."

Obviously, it's working. Participating schools report that 65 percent of kids on the principal's list and 40 percent on the honor roll also play on the Urban Initiatives soccer teams.

"A kid's father came up to me and said 'I want to thank you for all you've done for my son,'" says Dower. "'These kids really have the cards stacked against them and they need this program.'"