Princeton People: John Heilner Instrumental in Shaping Young Lives in Trenton

For Trenton youths, a mentor and a league provide hope

Princeton resident John Heilner chats with students on the soccer field.
Princeton resident John Heilner chats with students on the soccer field.

The Mooch Soccer program in Trenton offers kids ages 5 to 18 a safe haven, directing them away from the streets and onto the soccer field.

Back in 2007, the program’s first year, Princeton resident John Heilner was coaching a team in the Mooch Soccer travel program when he had an idea: There could be more to the program than soccer.

Heilner, a Princeton University graduate, approached volunteer league director Mike Van Wagner about ways to add an academic focus to the organization. Since then, Mooch has turned into a year-round program that is instrumental in the lives of hundreds of area youths.

The program has evolved into a soccer community that helps kids further their education. And there has been no one more instrumental in Mooch’s emergence as a bridge for students to pursue academics than Heilner, the program’s academic liaison.

“John is the guy who’s been connecting the kids to educational
opportunities, the kind of guy who has helped connect them with (high schools and) colleges,” said Van Wagner, former director of the Trenton City Recreational League. “And there’s no question he’s been just as instrumental in the character (building) of these kids.”

Heilner has mentored several students and guided dozens more in their academic pursuits. He builds a relationship with each student and the student’s family, and then guides them through the high school or college application process.

“The motivation has to come from the students, it’s all about the kids,” Van Wagner said. “They’re the ones that make it happen.”

Of the students Heilner has closely worked with, two stand out.

The first is Gerson Leiva, who grew up in a rough neighborhood in Trenton. Leiva had played on Heilner’s team in the Trenton City League, and was introduced to the Mooch Soccer program. Last spring, he graduated with a degree from Princeton University.

The second student is Emmanuel Temeh, the leading scorer on the St. Joseph’s University soccer team last year. With guidance from Heilner and others, Temeh transferred from Trenton Central High School to Trenton Catholic Academy for his junior year. While there, he earned all-state honors and graduated with a full athletic scholarship to attend St. Joseph’s.

Other students have been admitted to the Peddie School, Princeton Day School, and other area private and charter schools.

The Mooch program was created by Rider University men’s soccer coach Charlie Inverso. The program was named in memory of the late Glenn “Mooch” Myernick, a former professional soccer player and coach who assisted the U.S. Men’s National Team for years, including during the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. Last year, Myernick was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

“The aim we all share is through soccer to create good kids. Really develop good citizens,” said Van Wagner. “All these kids have a chance to make a name for themselves. They have something to aspire to, and that’s pretty exciting.”

Heilner says that he hopes other Princeton residents will take a passion they have and find a way to mentor and guide Trenton youth with it, and he would be happy to connect people to Trenton organizations. “Tennis, baseball, choral groups, dance, playing a musical instrument, creating art…there are so many possibilities,” he said.