Voices From The Field


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.”


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.


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


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 and let us know if you have sports equipment that we can put into a child’s hand tomorrow.

Paul Caccamo Executive Director

So Can You: Sports As a Solution to Poverty


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

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


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


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

Saving Youth Sports Programs in America


Save sports in America. Join Up2Us.

Become part of our national community.

I’m writing this on Super Bowl Sunday when most of America will be entertained by sports. While we experience football as a source of joy and diversion from our everyday lives, we need to remember that sports are also a critical lifeline for kids throughout this nation. Many kids rely on their coach to teach them skills that carry them from the field to their education, to their workplace, and onward to their success throughout their lifetimes. Many adults now in law offices, hospitals, government agencies, schools—in every career—attribute their success to values they’ve learned playing sports. Yet, at a time like this, sports programs are literally being wiped away in many communities because of budget cuts, pay-to-play, and lack of funding for anything other than reading writing and arithmetic. This must change.  Because this places the spirit of our American character at risk.

America is great because we have always encouraged the development of all sides of human character from the creative to the intellectual to the athletic. As a nation, we need to stay that way.  That’s why, on this Super Bowl Sunday, I am launching the inaugural blog for Up2Us to ask you to join our movement.

Up2Us is leading the national effort to be sure that every child in this country has access to a sports program that teaches them skills that will help them be a success in life. If you are a sports program that emphasizes youth development, join Up2Us. If you are an individual who cares about athletics, support Up2Us or any of our more than 500 members organizations across the country.

The future of sports is being sure that every child this nation has a chance to play. At the same time the future of solving this nation’s childhood obesity crisis, its dropout rates, and its gang problems is being sure that every child has a team to belong to.  Please check back on this blog and learn how Up2Us is making a difference.

And thank you for caring about youth sports across this nation.

Paul Caccamo Executive Director