Cherokee High School varsity soccer coach Riley Wildeman has been emotionally moved more times than he can count by the stories of his students. Riley, himself a Cherokee graduate who now teaches environmental science and biology at the county’s oldest high school, runs a soccer-based mentoring program out of its diverse halls called Strive for 23. An initiative to help at-risk students earn the twenty-three academic credits required for a diploma, Strive for 23 takes students’ love of soccer and turns it into motivation for them to attend classes and do well there.
A humble young coach with years of soccer experience, Riley explains that the Cherokee High School [CHS] student body includes a number of students who must go straight to work after school or who take care of younger siblings after school, rather than participating in athletics or other extracurricular activities. For many of these students, who need to make money to send home to family in other countries or to help pay rent for living arrangements, high school can seem like a waste of time.
Teaming up with other equally dedicated CHS staff members, including graduation coach Jeremy Law, baseball coach Josh Thomas, football coach Davis Harvey, and assistant principal Matt Cates, Riley set out to find a way to inspire these kids to stay in school despite their difficult circumstances.
Since 2022 two CHS teachers have taken turns giving up their lunch periods or planning periods every single day to take interested students to the school tennis courts to play soccer. This is the simple basis behind Strive for 23: when students are part of a team that needs them, they have inspiration to show up.
“By building this sense of community for kids through soccer—no one wants to let a coach or team down—these students learn they matter here,” Riley says. The students in Strive for 23 who need extra school support are identified and matched with a mentor who helps them decide what they need to do to reach the twenty-three credits required to graduate and how specifically to get there. Through academic and attendance accountability, these students discover, often for the first time in their lives, what it means to have someone believe in them.
Riley says the largest lunchtime games consist of about sixty students, with about 160 students participating overall. In 2023 Strive for 23 arranged a pep rally and lunch-period tournament that Riley says is an experience none of them will ever forget. Without resources to play club ball and without the time to dedicate to the varsity and junior varsity teams at school, Strive for 23 students have often never played in front of anyone before, and certainly they’ve never been cheered on. Riley says of the students after experiencing high-fives and boisterous applause, “Seeing their self-confidence grow and watching them all get on track to graduate is magical.”
Strive for 23 would not be able to succeed without partnerships like the one with Cherokee Youth Foundation and Cherokee Soccer Association (Cherokee Impact). “We do soccer so amazingly,” says the foundation’s Kim Bishop, “but we may do community even better.”
Like Riley, Kim is hesitant for any spotlight to shine somewhere other than on the students; however, few people know that in addition to running highly popular local soccer programs, Cherokee Impact created and manages the Cherokee Collective, the vision of cofounders Shane Moore and Zip Cain. A large organization of area nonprofits helping other nonprofits, Shane says the network is “a great sampling of our caring Cherokee community. The Strive for 23 program was proudly launched, supported, and executed by members of this group.”
As a result of idea-generating discussions in the network, a smaller assistive organization called the Warrior Collective has launched at CHS. Here school clubs and athletic teams help meet community needs. Through these initiatives soccer balls and other items have been provided for the students participating in Strive for 23.
“What’s happening at Cherokee High School is really special,” Kim says, “and it’s because of the incredible ability of these teachers to invest in and connect with their students. Riley is the glue holding the programming together and ensuring these kids’ success.”
Together teachers and coaches are leading the way to build student-adult relationships and give kids experiences they would not otherwise have. The proof of Strive for 23’s success goes beyond the smiles on students’ faces. In the program’s inaugural year seventy students who were not going to graduate were placed back on track to earn their credits. And this past spring, every Strive for 23 senior graduated!
This summer, Riley was contacted by other area schools who now want to model programs after Strive for 23. “Providing opportunity and giving students a reason to get up in the morning,” Kim says, “who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? It’s amazing what a sport can do.”
Mountain Movers: A Personal Story of Soccer Success
One of the most poignant student stories out of Coach Riley Wildeman’s Strive for 23 graduation program is of a student who came to Cherokee High School after arriving in the United States as a non-English speaker. At just fifteen, the student ended up living in Canton without immediate family, paying rent to a distant relative for a room, and working every day from four o’clock in the afternoon until midnight assembling furniture, all while attending CHS.
A gifted soccer player and strong student, he was identified as a teen who could benefit from Strive for 23. He wanted to play for the school’s team but lacked both the resources and the time, especially because he was working to earn money to pay for his passage to America. The devoted mentors at CHS assisted with his academic and attendance accountability, and when he was able to relieve some of his debt, the student approached coaches about finding a way to play varsity ball. The student who began at CHS playing soccer in Crocs on a tennis court will end his time at Cherokee as a varsity athlete, playing on real soccer pitches, and more importantly, as an academically successful graduate.
This student saw more than a 30 percent increase in his English-speaking ability in just seven months at CHS. Riley credits the achievement to the steadfast efforts of Cherokee’s ESOL teacher team including Gabriela Ratcliff, Micah Brittin, and Morgan Flint. “The ESOL team,” Riley says, “is instrumental in fostering the culture that Strive for 23 needs to be successful. It demonstrates the value of community in developing our English language learners.”
Sharing this student story to model the impact of the program, Riley says,
“This is an example of how Strive for 23 can change the trajectory of a child’s life. Here are kids who don’t even know they have additional opportunities, and together we are showing them. We are moving mountains through soccer.”
To volunteer with Cherokee Youth Foundation or support Strive for 23, contact Cherokee Youth Foundation by calling 770-704-0187 or visiting CherokeeYF.org, or contact Coach Riley Wildeman at Riley.Wildeman@cherokeek12.net.
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