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

Treating Trauma Through Sports


Last week, Up2Us and Edgework Consulting delivered a training on the power of sport to help traumatized kids heal.  It was part of a partnership between the US Attorney’s office and local SBYD leaders in Philadelphia to use sport to address the difficult challenge of working with youth in the juvenile justice system. Most initiatives aiming to keep court-involved youth out of trouble fail to recognize one critical characteristic of the population.  Youth who have been exposed to a lifetime of poverty, violence, or both, are traumatized.   Trauma impairs the normal development of their brains and bodies and keeps them from functioning in social situations.

Traumatized youth don’t develop the tools to regulate their emotions or control their impulses.  Sometimes, they are aggressive and self-destructive; sometimes they isolate themselves.   Either way, the behavior is not consistent with social norms and youth are punished for it…even though they can’t control it.  Instead of punishment, what traumatized youth really need is a chance to reconnect with their bodies and redevelop social and emotional skills.

They need to play sports.

Within the lines of a lacrosse field or basketball court, youth have the chance to be in control of their bodies and overcome the paralyzing fear of their past.  They are encouraged to take risks in a safe and supportive environment where the consequences are not a matter of life or death.  They develop a relationship with a caring adult who offers the consistency and predictability that helps them feel in control.   They have the chance to heal.

The potential for using sport in the process of healing traumatized youth is boundless.  And the need is great.  In Philadelphia, they have proposed a simple solution- for probation officers and coaches to work together to provide youth a place where they not only get respite from the chronic trauma of their everyday lives, but also the chance to reverse its effects.  We think they are on to something brilliant.  And we’ll be supporting them in every way we can.

Megan Bartlett Director, Up2Us Center

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

"Driving" a Nation To Better Health


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

GAO Releases Study on State of Youth Sports: Up2Us Responds


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

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