Sports and the City: More than Just Playing the Field

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Yes, little Cooper and Willow have been enrolled in Gymboree, Mommy-and-Me swim classes, and tee-ball since they were able to roll over. Then it was field hockey, lacrosse, baseball, soccer, swim team, maybe cross-country. 

In case you don’t already know this firsthand via countless hours shuttling pre-drivers to their many, many practices, games, clinics, and team dinners, playing sports-–just like education-–rapidly becomes a family affair. Not to mention that Olivia’s trip to the All-Stars with her basketball team often takes financial precedence over, say, a sorely needed winter coat for Mom or Dad.

But for many Baltimore families with equally precious children, there aren’t enough resources to even sacrifice. The many benefits of playing on a sports team go untapped.

Thankfully, several enterprising programs in Baltimore are stepping up to the plate to introduce and encourage growing bodies and minds, and put not only athletics but also academics to the test.

Not Just a Racket

Inspired by their own love of the game, a group of Baltimore-area squash players set their sights on sharing the experience with the city’s youth, and in 2007, founded SquashWise. More than just interested in introducing the sport to the next generation, the board members were determined to expand and improve upon the extracurricular opportunities available to Baltimore city kids. 

But that’s just the squash part. The wise part comes from the rigorous academic expectations of the program. 

Once enrolled in SquashWise, students attend six days a week during the school year. The SquashWise bus picks them up after school and takes them to either Meadow Mill Athletic Center or the Johns Hopkins University squash courts-–both donated spaces-–where they have a healthy snack before changing into their sharp red and black uniforms (donated by squash athletic gear company Harrow). For the rest of the afternoon, students alternate between academic tutoring and athletic coaching. 

As a member of the National Urban Squash & Education Association (NUSEA), SquashWise based itself on the model of urban squash and education programs that have been successful in many other cities across the country, including the original SquashBusters in Boston, founded in 1996. In 2008 the Baltimore group was selected as NUSEA’s first-ever “Star Program,” receiving a $100,000 challenge grant over the first two years—a challenge that SquashWise met in full with support from Baltimore’s charitable community.

Currently working in partnership with Baltimore Civitas School, SquashWise strives to provide full support to students who are dedicated to becoming accomplished scholar-athletes, as demonstrated by gains in classroom effort, behavior, fitness and attitude.

“We describe our students as under-served, “ says SquashWise Executive Director Abby Markoe. “By ‘at-risk,’ [we mean] they are actually at risk of missing out on academic opportunities and athletic opportunities. Very few have ever been members of a team before. SquashWise works to fill the gap that often exists between school and parents and kids. We provide support to the kids, schools and parents. Everyone is communicating.”

Communication must be going well. In 2010, the Baltimore City School Board selected SquashWise as an “Outstanding Partner,” in recognition of the impressive work they do with city students.

As helpful as the tutoring is, Markoe admits, “It’s the squash keeps them coming back every day. [SquashWise] opens opportunities for high school play. Plus it gives students an identity that separates them from their peers.”

Skating Toward Success

Even before the introduction of the urban squash program, another innovative program was offering unusual athletic opportunities for Baltimore kids living on thin ice: hockey.

Since lakes and ponds in the inner-city rarely stay frozen long enough for an outdoor team to develop any kind of magic, or for a regular pick-up game to establish itself in the neighborhood, ice hockey around here requires a substantial commitment of both time and finances.

For the past 13 years Baltimore Youth Hockey has sponsored the Patterson Park Stars, a 15-week program of ice hockey instruction and team building for boys and girls, ages seven to 14.  Like Squashwise, the program offers an uncommon opportunity to play ice hockey for dozens of economically-compromised boys and girls from East and Southeast Baltimore.  Participation in the Patterson Park Stars requires a strict set of academic and behavioral standards. And as with SquashWise, it’s the game that keeps players on their game.

“The kids love it,” says former professional hockey player and current BYH Director Boe Leslie. “It’s not a sport most of them normally get to play, but once they get a chance on the ice they really thrive.”

Each season, BYH contracts the Patterson Park Ice Rink on Sunday mornings for the Stars’ games. Players are outfitted and loaned new and used hockey equipment for use throughout the program. 

Advantage Everyone

Moving further down the court, Greater Baltimore Tennis Patrons (GBTP) actively works to turn a sometimes-exclusive sport (remember being bounced from the club for wearing pastel instead of white?) into a truly all-inclusive game with programs that teach not only the basics, but also wheelchair court skills. The specific mission of BTP’s programming for low-income and other under-served youth is twofold, to use tennis to inspire and assist children to stay in school, graduate, pursue higher education with scholarships/financial aid or gain satisfying employment, and to impart education and skills that will lead to safe and healthy decision-making, elevated self-esteem and multicultural social competencies.”

GBTP offers another benefit often missing in its players lives: a sit-down supper. Through the Family League of Baltimore’s Snack and Supper Program, meals are provided and shared in the cafeteria each time the groups meet. “It’s not true for all but many of these kids don’t have a regular family meal,” notes Director of Programs Lynne Morrell. The meal exemplifies GBTP’s commitment to nutritional education, something that reinforces the relationship between diet and exercise.

Consistency of encouragement and support is crucial,” stresses Morrell. “We require a commitment from our staff for the full 24-week program. People come in and out of these kids lives a lot and we don’t want to mirror that negative experience.”

It’s Not Baltimore without Lacrosse

Baltimore Youth Lacrosse League (BYLL) was founded by Ryan Boyle, Rob Lindsey, and Dave Skeen, three Gilman grads and former lacrosse stars who wanted to share their love of lacrosse with some of the probably-not-Gilman-grads of Baltimore City. The summer league was created to give kids an outlet for lacrosse once school was dismissed for the summer, and a skills clinic run by Boyle, a professional lacrosse player and member of the Championship 2010 U.S. National Team.

Dave Novak, exec director, sums up the appeal of lacrosse: “It’s fast and involves contact but you need a team to make it work.” As with all of these programs, the BYLF recognizes the importance of getting kids involved in sports early to keep them out of trouble later. “Middle school is really the last chance to have a profound effect,” recognizes Novak.

And then the police got involved—as coaches. This year the BYLL partnered with the Baltimore City Police Department and Parks and People to increase the number of their lacrosse programs. The interaction between the officers and the “at-risk” youth leads to an uncommon bond. Potential adversaries on the stark streets of the city become supporters, allies, and friends on the grassy lacrosse fields. 

Ball’s in Your Court

All of these amazing programs are always looking for donations of both time and money. To learn how to volunteer, and to find out about upcoming events, visit the organizations’ websites. Or better yet—go out and cheer at one of the games. Encouragement and recognition are always in demand and often in short supply.

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