america

Voices From The Field

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The most important part of my job is to listen and learn from heroes. All over this country, men and women are sacrificing their time and energy to coach at-risk kids in sports.  These coaches have no money, no equipment, and no uniforms.   But they have a commitment to kids; in many cases, to kids who have been given up on.  Here's a few stories I heard in just the past few weeks:

In Miami, I met a coach who goes into the public schools and asks the principals to give him the most dangerous kids roaming those hallways.  “The kids who have been incarcerated, who everyone has given up on.”  He then plucks those kids out of the school, one by one, and takes them fishing.  That's right, he takes them fishing.   For many of these teenage males, they have never spent any quality time with an older male.  In poorer African-American communities, these kids see gangs and violence as the only way to prove their manhood.  But fishing alongside of an older male who looks just like them but chose a different path in life is all they need to see their lives differently.  "They don't even have to talk to one another," the coach told me.  "Just being in each other's presence is sometimes all it takes."   The coach told me that after a dozen years, he recently received his first donation of tackle boxes.  He's still trying to get enough fishing rods to give one to every child in the program.

In New Orleans, I met a football coach who told me how he spent a year preparing his kids to have the confidence to play in a football tournament.  "They practiced every day," the coach said, "and they committed to staying in school and staying out of trouble."  But when the tournament came, even the coach couldn't change the outcome.   "When the kids got to the field, they were in awe.  The other teams had uniforms and pads.  Our kids only had t-shirts and tennis shoes.  If you could see the defeat on their faces before the game even began. They felt that they just weren’t good enough.  They immediately turned around and got back on the bus.”   The coach is still looking for donations of uniforms.

In New York, I sat with a retired man as we watched a group of boys playing basketball.  All of the boys were from a nearby housing organization where he still sits on the board of directors.  Thanks to Coach Across America, his son was now their basketball coach.    I asked the dad what else these kids needed besides a coach.  "Trophies," he answered, "every one of them.".  He then explained:  "I can point to each of the boys on this court and tell you a story you wouldn’t believe.  Who's in an abusive home, whose brother was just sent to prison, who doesn’t get fed a decent meal, whose parent is an addict, who was sent away to live with an aunt.  Against all these odds, these boys get together every afternoon with my son and instead of joining a gang or doing drugs, they play basketball and commit to their future.  Yet, no one has ever pressed pause and given them a trophy.”  “Why?” I asked.  “Because we don’t have the money to buy them one.”

Volunteer…

Donate uniforms or equipment…

Like many of you, I still have my trophies on the wall from when I was kid.

Paul Caccamo Executive Director

20 Questions. Coach Holly. Title IX.

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Last year, I was at a training where a dozen adults in attendance were each secretly given the name of an accomplished male athlete.   They were then instructed to walk around the room and play 20 Questions with one another and see how many of these athletes they could identify from amongst their peers.  At the end of ten minutes, a tally was taken to see how the group did.  Every secret athlete had been identified multiple times by multiple participants in the room. Next, the same attendants were then asked to repeat the game.  But this time, each participant was secretly given the name of a female athlete.  The female athletes were equally accomplished as the male athletes in terms of Olympic medals or championships won.  The game of 20 Questions ensued.  At the end of 10 minutes, only two of the female athletes were identified by the entire group.

Now, let's hold that thought, as I tell you about Coach Holly.

This past Friday, Coach Holly spoke to a room filled with the employees of Mercedes-Benz USA.  It was all part of a celebration of the commitment of Mercedes-Benz and the Laureus Sport For Good Foundation to support Coach Across America in cities across the nation.  Holly told the employees of how girls at the school where she coaches were being tormented by boys.  They said, "you girls shouldn't play sports.  Don't you know that girls don't make good athletes".  But her girls quickly snapped back: "That's not true.  Look at Coach Holly.  She's a great athlete."

20 Questions.  Coach Holly.   Title IX.  40 Years Later...

In case you don't know, Title IX was the landmark legislation passed 40 years ago this week that was supposed to level the playing field for girls to participate in school sports.   Despite its provisions, this past year was the first year in decades in which the number of girls playing sports has actually decreased, not increased. It's no surprise when you consider how little recognition we give to female athletes and how few schools actually benefit from a Coach Holly.  We still have a long way to go.

In the meantime, one thing we should insist upon for all coaches, male and female, is TRAINING.  That’s right, training on gender in sports.  Girls socialize, learn and acquire confidence in ways that are different than boys.  But with most coaches being male, "STOP TALKING" is often the acceptable M.O. at soccer or basketball practice.  And while that might work to control a rambunctious group of 10 year-old boys, for girls trying a new sport for the first time it might translate as "STOP PLAYING".  At Up2Us, we believe every coach needs to be trained to engage girls in developmentally appropriate manners that respect their different learning styles and increase their passion for sports.  This is not just because every girl should experience the joy of sports, it is because every girl should experience the benefits of sport.  These benefits are self-confidence, leadership skills, discipline, conflict resolution and determination.  Without them, girls may be at a disadvantage not just as athletes but as future businesspersons and world leaders.

The Up2Us Center for Sports-Based Youth Development is developing training to reach thousands of coaches in the next few years.  Our Coach Across America program is hiring and placing hundreds of women as coach-mentors to girls in urban communities.  It's just a few steps we are taking to make a more equal nation, 40 years later.  We believe in a nation in which gender simply doesn't matter on the field, on the court, or in the stadium…and it shouldn't matter the next time you play 20 Questions either.

Paul Caccamo Executive Director

1 Bike = 1 Life

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I was stopped by a public school teacher in New York City.  He was heartbroken.  Here’s the story he told me: In 2010, a young male who was repeatedly bullied at his inner-city high school joined a bicycling program where this teacher volunteered as a coach.  The bike program was the only sports program available to this kid.  The program targeted at-risk youth by combining bicycling with mentoring and life skills development.   “I watched this kid transform before my very eyes.”

In 2011, the young male was not only attending school regularly but he finished first in a hundred mile race.  This was a big accomplishment for a cyclist who had not even been on a bike before joining the program.   It also exposed him to the possibilities in his future.  “I knew this kid was smart and was going places.”

In 2012, the bicycle program, struggling to raise funds in this troubled economy, was forced to discontinue services at this teacher’s school.   And that’s when the heartbreak happened:  “The kid came up to me just last week and told me that he dropped out of school.  ‘Coach’, he said, ‘this cycling program was the only place that ever made me feel I belonged.’"

The cost of maintaining one bicycle for that school translates to the cost of an entire life that will not progress beyond a high school education.  That’s a life at greater risk of being incarcerated, unemployed and dependent on public assistance.  The alternative was simply a bicycle.

The irony of this story is that it was told to me in the lobby of an Equinox gym where tens and thousands of New Yorkers take their cycling machines for granted.  I think there’s a message here to gyms and other corporations:  use the power of your business to help the communities you serve.   What would it take for gyms to have community nights where programs that bring health to underserved youth can share information with their health conscious consumers?   For the gym, it would demonstrate that their commitment to fitness extends beyond the bottom line—it reaches out into the community.  For the gym member, it would help them to take pride in companies that they choose to give their business.  And for the nonprofits, it might just create a connection with one conscientious gym member who could donate a bicycle….and save a life.

Gyms and other companies that want to make a genuine difference in the wellbeing of children across America should reach out to me, and I’ll help them set up these community nonprofit nights.  And, for individuals, don’t wait for your gym to motivate you, just visit www.up2us.org and let us know if you have sports equipment that we can put into a child’s hand tomorrow.

Paul Caccamo Executive Director

"Driving" a Nation To Better Health

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This past week, Mercedes-Benz USA, in partnership with the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, announced a $1.15 million gift to the Up2Us Coach Across America program. The announcement was made in Chicago with celebrity athletes and Laureus World Sport Academy Members, Edwin Moses and Marcus Allen, in attendance. The funding will sponsor 250 coaches in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and New Orleans. There's something very special about this donation: it came from an automobile company. That's right, an automobile company whose business is not obviously tied to fighting childhood obesity or promoting health outcomes. But Mercedes Benz USA demonstrates that maybe it's business is, in fact, tied to the wellbeing of the next generation of Americans. Maybe all our business is tied to this one single outcome.

You don't need an Italian mother like mine to remind you that "if you have your health, you have everything". Yet, we continue to ignore the worsening situation in which an estimated 25 million children will watch their health erode because of poor diets and a lack of opportunities to engage in regular physical activity. Without their health, this generation will face countless other challenges, that include low worker productivity, low quality of life, low civic engagement and even increased depression. Is this really the future of America?

The 250 Coach Across America coaches will be equipped with the tools to use sports to teach nutrition and wellness and to inspire physical activity for more than 40,000 at-risk youth. This is just the start for this program, which challenges every person to use their love of sports to spend a year in service to kids who need them.

If our nation has its health, it has everything.

At a time in which we face numerous challenges, let's keep this in the forefront of our minds.

Paul Caccamo Executive Director

Building A National Movement

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There are conflicting reports on the number of youth playing sports and whether it is increasing or decreasing. I want to focus for a moment on the "decreasing":

The opportunities for youth to play sports in low-income communities is decreasing.

The number of youth playing sports in low-income communities is decreasing.

And, the role sports play in addressing critical life-skills development for all youth, regardless of socioeconomic background, is decreasing.

For kids in many public schools, sports are going the route of arts and music programs: they are disappearing.  And for girls who benefitted from Title 9 legislation forty years ago that protected them from discrimination in sports, their programs are being sacrificed even faster---especially when the school chooses to prioritize saving the boy's basketball team or boy's football team.

This is why we are building a national movement to preserve youth sports in America.   We are rallying youth sports providers nationwide to join Up2Us to prevent sports from being accessible only to the most athletically-inclined or the most economically well off. Through Up2Us, these providers are finding new ways to share resources, strengthen programs, support coach-mentors, conduct evaluation, tackle issues like field space, and perhaps, most importantly, attract new sources of donations to keep kids from being sidelined for life.   Individuals and other donors can help this movement as well:  by donating cash, product, equipment, and time at www.up2us.org.

The Up2Us model of unifying the field of sports-based youth development to fight for its preservation is critical.  Let's use it to ensure access to sports for generations to come.  And yes, let's create a model that one day can be used to spurn future movements, like one that revives those arts and music programs as well.

Paul Caccamo Executive Director

GAO Releases Study on State of Youth Sports: Up2Us Responds

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The following are excerpts of a speech made by Paul Caccamo at a Congressional Briefing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, March 20.:   In 2010, Up2Us gathered 100 program leaders to Washington and requested a GAO study to explore the state of youth sports.   I want to lead off my comments about this study by saying:  "This report is exactly why Up2Us exists"

This report points out that sports play a unique role in promoting physical health, academic success and pro-social behavior.  To my knowledge, this is the first time the GAO has ever publicly stated the value of sports as an agent of social change in our society.    This is an important statement especially because we are one of the only federal governments that does not have an agency or policy director specifically in charge of youth sports.

The report also makes clear that the federal government does not allocate any formal resources to protect youth sports in this country.  For example:

The Dept. Of Education does not require a minimum level of funding be allocated to school sports----though participation in sports is tied to increased academic performance.

The Dept. Of Justice, which funds mentors, does not yet include coaches in the current portfolio of mentors, though participation in youth sports is tied to decreased gang activity.

And the Dept. Of Health does not have programs linking their support for promoting physical activity to sports activities that are proven solutions to ending childhood obesity.

The report points out another important challenge facing youth sports in the years ahead: that the infrastructure that is necessary for youth sports is crumbling.  At Up2Us, we know firsthand from our members that in many cities kids can’t play because they have no busses or transportation to get to the games.  We know that school gyms are now classrooms, cafeterias are makeshift gyms, courts are in disrepair, and fields are often padlocked after school.   We know that equipment is in dangerous disrepair and some teams are forced to share uniforms.  And we know that schools and communities are lacking trained coaches during daytime hours when kids need them the most.

There are three last points on this report that I think are worth commenting on for further study:

1. The report states that opportunity to play sports are increasing based on evidence from 2000 to 2006 and interviews with a dozen officials.   Yet, Up2Us has found that $3.5 billion has been cut from public school sports programs based on data collected from almost 500 public schools and districts across the country in the past two years.

2.  The report says that roughly 30% of public schools charge fees or “pay-to-play” and that this percentage has not changed by much between 2000 to 2006.  Yet, Up2Us has found that the past 3 years have been devastating economically to many communities.  Pay-to-play is now surging as a practice and is embraced by 43 states.  As a result, at least 40% of public schools charge fees as of 2010.

3.  Finally, the report mentions that schools that charge pay to play or other fees sometimes waive these fees for youth who cannot afford them.  Yet the report does not going into further detail about whether the existence of these fees is a barrier to prevent poor youth from even trying out for sports; whether these fee waivers tend to favor talented youth over non-talented athletes; and what happens to schools in the poorest public school districts in which no student is able to afford a fee.

I will tell you what happens.  Their sports programs disappear.

Despite these discrepancies, I am pleased that at least we are finally having this dialogue about the State of Youth Sports in America at the level of our Federal Government.  I thank all the members of Up2Us who petitioned in Washington to make this dialogue possible.  Thanks also to the leadership of Congressional Youth Sports Caucus.  As this report makes abundantly clear, our endgame is not to fight for sports to make the next great team of American all-stars, but to protect sports to ensure the next great generation of American citizens.

Paul Caccamo Executive Director

So Can You: Sports As a Solution to Poverty

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The director of an Up2Us program once told me the story of her childhood.  She grew up in a housing project where her mother had her when she was a teenager, and her grandmother had her mother when she was a teenager.  She was told never to expect to leave the housing project or the cycle of poverty that she was born into because it “just didn’t happen.”  But throughout her childhood, she ran track and played sports—and her coach had different dreams for her.  Her coach told her to imagine college, to imagine success, and to imagine a life beyond the projects.  With her coach’s ongoing support, she set goals for herself as an athlete and a student. She used the skills she learned from being part of the team to become successful in college, in her career and in life… Can sports end poverty?  Yes they can.  And I think the model for doing so goes something like this:  we train coaches to inspire young people in areas of extreme urban and rural poverty.  These coaches coach after school, but they also meet with children during the school day to “check in on them” and help them set weekly goals for themselves.  These goals include everything from life skills, educational goals, employment skills, to simply believing in themselves.  The coaches also create expectations for the teams so that the kids can learn from each other on and off the field.  This includes teammates holding each other accountable for being on time, working together, resolving conflict, focusing on common goals, encouraging each other’s success, overcoming failure, and continuously setting higher expectations.  Sounds awfully like employees at Microsoft or Apple.

Through this model, sports can provide children the skills they can use in future careers in businesses, nonprofits and government agencies.  I get to see sports do this everyday.  Not just through the more than 500 Up2Us member organizations that conduct sports-based youth development programming in every state in this country, but through the coaches in the Up2Us Coach Across America program.  Coach Across America is an AmeriCorps program that challenges adults to spend a year in service inspiring low-income youth through sports.  AmeriCorps is a federal program that was started to end poverty in this nation.  Coach Across America is the sports solution that accomplishes this goal.

…and as for that program director who grew up in the housing project: twenty years later, she’s right back where she started from.  But this time she’s not there as a resident but as a coach.  She leaves her day job every afternoon just to be there for her team of girls.  Her message to each of them is a powerful one:

“I did it and so can you.”

Paul Caccamo Executive Director

It's a Slam Dunc’an

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Okay, the title might be hokey, but this is perhaps the most simple lesson plan for the U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan:  if we are going to address dropout rates in schools, Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, and education reform in general, we need to address the role that sports play in motivating children to succeed academically. No doubt Secretary Duncan has a challenging job in trying to reform public schools where the dropout rate is above 50% in many urban communities and hovers around 30% nationwide. Yet, the Secretary, himself, knows the power of sports. He played basketball, coached basketball, and was an all-American in basketball at Harvard.  In fact, he credits basketball for providing him his team-oriented and highly disciplined work ethic.  So, Secretary, why not make basketball part of your own lesson plan for education reform?

We know that students who play sports are more likely to have better grades, higher educational aspirations and advanced educational achievement beyond high school.  We also know that they are absent from school half as much as non-athletes, they get in less trouble, and they pay more attention in class.   One study has shown that student athletes are eight-times more likely to graduate than non-athletes.   Yet, despite this, public school districts have cut $3.5 billion from their school athletic budgets. We are not only losing athletes through these cuts, we're losing the students themselves.

I propose we launch Sports Empowerment Zones.  The Zones would target schools that are failing the most.  Instead of trying the same-old formulas for educational reform, what we will do is gather sports-based youth development programs to rally around these zones. We will challenge every student to sign up for at least two teams per year, whether it be baseball, basketball, swimming, track, lacrosse or biking. We will engage parents not to come out to hear if their kid “is failing or not” but to come out and cheer for their kid at a game or a competition or a race. We will engage the local police to ensure that the school grounds are safe throughout the extended day.  We will train the coaches to talk to their players about academic goal setting, health, wellness, and gang prevention.

And most importantly, we will use the joy of sports to attract kids to attend school more often and to set aspirations for themselves that use the values they learn as athletes on and off the field.  Sports Empowerment Zones will do more to turn around the dropout rate than any other education reform currently available.  They will also be cost-effective for us getting real results in our failing schools.

So next time you pass by a failing school, just imagine what it might look like to see a sign “You are Entering A Sports Empowerment Zone” and then see that school surrounded by kids with their coaches.  All of us, from sports program leaders to school administrators to parents, must advocate for sports in our community if we are to achieve these results.  Secretary Duncan certainly gets the value of sports in his life.  Let's remind him and our local school administrators the value it can have on the lives of so many other students as well.

Paul Caccamo Executive Director

Dear Mayors of Detroit, Las Vegas, Memphis, Anchorage, Baltimore and St. Louis…

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Unfortunately, your cities have some of the highest violence rates in the nation. But I have a solution for you, and it's very cost cost-effective.   It's a soccer ball… or tennis ball…or basketball…or hockey puck… Numerous studies have shown that kids who play sports are much less likely to engage in gangs and violent behavior.  One study found that urban communities with lots of youth activities experienced 18-times less crime than communities with fewer activities.  This is a message that we need to pay attention to. In the past decade, the number of young people joining gangs in United States has increased. The most recent national survey shows that 775,000 children in America report being gang members.

Why does a child join a gang? Because they get from it a sense of belonging, teamwork, leadership and discipline---the very same qualities that they can get from being on the basketball or track team. The problem is the basketball team, the track team, the baseball team, the ”sports teams” in their communities have all disappeared.  Budget cuts have devastated youth sports, particularly in urban communities.

Mayors, if you want to fight gangs and make our cities safer places to live in, why not call on the youth sports community to be your greatest allies? Up2Us has run youth sports conferences in more than a dozen cities, and it's amazing to learn how many obstacles urban youth sports programs must go through in order to keep their programs functioning on a daily basis. Yet, without any political support or citywide coordination, they strive to do so because they know they are critical lifelines to the kids they serve.  These youth sports leaders are community leaders, and their programs are community assets.  Ask for their help to develop a comprehensive strategy to reach more kids; to open more fields, courts, and facilities; to provide more coaches trained in conflict resolution; and to give kids more alternatives to gangs.

When I was in Chicago I met a 12-year-old boy who told me that most of his siblings were already in jail. He also told me that the previous year—at age 11—he was recruited by the neighborhood gang.  He learned to carry a gun.

“Are you still in the gang?” I asked.

He looked at me funny and said “no”.

“Why?” I said.

He tied his cleats, jumped up, and said, “because now I have soccer practice.”

Mayors, this one 12 year-old child, and former gang member, may have just given you your entire crime prevention strategy.

Paul Caccamo Executive Director

We Need a National Jobs Program for Youth Sports in America

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By now, most of us are well aware of the epidemic of childhood obesity in this nation, and we have seen many moves on the part of the food industry and the schools to address it. However, that's only half of the equation for solving this problem; the other half is how do we inspire kids throughout our country to be more active. The urgency of this effort cannot be understated. If we continue to live as inactively as we do now, the cost of treating diseases from conditions related to childhood obesity such as diabetes will potentially collapse our U.S. healthcare system. Already 20% of healthcare bills stem from preventable diseases like diabetes that afflict only 8% of the population. At current rates, more than 50% of Americans will be diabetic or pre-diabetic by 2020; this will cost U.S. healthcare $3.5 trillion in the next decade alone. Sustainable?

We know that kids who play sports are eight times more likely to be active throughout their lifetimes. We also know that youth who play sports develop healthier attitudes about what they choose to eat. Yet, at a time like this, fewer kids are playing sports in America than ever before, especially in communities where childhood obesity rates are the highest. This is because their sports programs have been cut and eliminated. Their schools have wiped out entire teams and leagues, especially those that serve girls and middle school students.

We can change this now. We should create a national jobs program that challenges adults to be coaches, especially in this nation's most disadvantaged communities. Not just any coaches but trained coaches. Trained coaches are those who can address health, nutrition and other aspects of youth development so that children participating in their programs can get the skills they need to be successful and healthy adults.

There’s something else that’s equally special about creating a national job program for youth sports. It will create jobs for those that need them the most. Right now the highest unemployment bracket in this country is young adults ages 18 to 24 years old. For minorities, the unemployment rate for this age group almost doubles. Yet, it is this very  same group who may hold the key to solving the biggest threat facing our youth this century. If given the opportunity to be coaches, this group can use their passion for sports to change the national health trajectory. They can also get job skills training that can lead to career paths in areas such as health education, youth and recreational services, teaching and nonprofit management.

Up2Us is already proving the cost effectiveness of this model through our Coach Across America program. Coach Across America has placed 280 coaches in 110 low-income communities this past year. Many of these coaches come from minority communities with high unemployment rates. Coach Across America gives them their first job and trains them with skills that lead to long-term employment. In turn, they use their familiarity with their communities to get more than 35,000 youth engaged in regular physical activity, many for the first time. This program is currently an AmeriCorps program and provides minimal stipends to these young adults. Yet, guess how many applied for these low-paying 280 positions? 4500.

The passion is out there and the need is out there. We need corporations to join with the government in growing this program and translating this model into a national jobs program.

We need a national job program for youth sports.

It’s a win-win situation.

It solves our nation's childhood epidemic and it puts young adults to work.

Paul Caccamo Executive Director