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Home  > Article

Breaking down the barriers between sports and athletes

By Aimee Whitenack

Athletes are are leading the charge in establishing grassroots outreach programs that teach their sport to inner-city and at-risk youth. In the process, they're establishing a new niche of jobs that combine social service with athletic passion.

 
"There aren't many things that catch kids' attention these days, and if you can find one, you've got to leverage it." - Zack Lehman, 27, MetroLacrosse
 

With athletes like Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters dominating their respective games and inspiring fans of all ages with their grit and grace, sports that were once the domain of the privileged are becoming more popular-and accessible-than ever before. In addition to golf and tennis, sports like squash, crew, fencing, and lacrosse are at last welcoming a more diverse generation of participants.

Athletes are also realizing that the boundaries (like archaic traditions and expensive facilities) that stand between the sport they love and a fleet of diverse young players are surmountable. These people are leading the charge in establishing grassroots outreach programs that teach their sport to inner-city and at-risk youth. In the process, they're establishing a new niche of jobs that combine social service with athletic passion.

Busting Barriers
SquashBusters is an organization that brings squash to inner-city school-children around Boston.

Most of us would call 100 rambunctious sixth-graders swatting at little blue balls with long-handled racquets a scene of chaos. For Mary Beth Horn, however, it's simply enthusiasm. Horn, 24, is the academic and community service director for SquashBusters, an organization that brings squash to inner-city school-children around Boston.

While at one time Horn had visions of becoming a public school teacher (she has her master's in special education), at SquashBusters, she gets to combine her love of teaching kids with her love of squash-in an environment where respect and enthusiasm are paramount. While she's at it, she's happy to be helping squash become less elitist.

One week each year, Horn and her fellow SquashBusters arrive at schools in the Boston area with 100 squash racquets and 100 balls. The most spirited students-few of whom have heard of squash before - will eventually be selected for the three-year program, where they'll spend two afternoons a week receiving squash lessons, as well as academic tutoring from SquashBusters staff.

Horn calls squash the "carrot" that is used to motivate the kids to put their absolute best effort into everything they do. "It's interesting to see them realize that hard work, extra hours on the court, can help them beat opponents. It takes much longer to get that message across about school," she says. The hope is that their discipline on the court and with their schoolwork will earn participants scholarships to prep schools, admission to top public schools, or simply better report cards. "Every success is a victory," says Horn.

Behind the Scenes
The United States Golf Association's foundation office gives grants to golf programs that reach disadvantaged youth and disabled individuals.

With the proliferation of sports outreach programs, making a difference doesn't always mean you're on the front lines coaching and tutoring. From fund-raising to program development to public relations, a number of behind-the-scenes positions have also been created.

Take Mackenzie Hurd, 24, who after captaining his college's men's golf team landed a job with the United States Golf Association's foundation office, which gives grants to golf programs that reach disadvantaged youth and disabled individuals. After a two-year stint processing applications for the foundation office, he was given the opportunity to go out in the field. Hurd, who grew up in Rhode Island, had heard about a 30-acre plot of land outside Providence-once an eyesore filled with stray trash and abandoned cars-that was being transformed into a nine-hole golf course for inner-city kids. He wanted to take part.

"The reason I got involved is because I want to see these kids get into golf, but I think my resources and skills are better used behind the scenes," says Hurd, who now works at the course, known as Button Hole. His primary tasks are fund-raising and putting together a development document that will be the major resource for anyone else looking to create a similar facility. (Hurd says that more than 100 such courses are in the works nationwide.) The facility's mission is to provide kids from various organizations, like social service agencies and Boys and Girls Clubs, with free golf lessons and access to the course.

If the present pilot program is any indication, Button Hole will be a huge success. The kids now in the pilot program, captivated by both the acres of green space and the game, will be back for intermediate instruction next year-and they'll be joined by nearly 1,000 newcomers. What does it mean for Hurd? He'd better keep on raising money.

Get Involved
The executive director of MetroLacrosse, an organization that supports lacrosse programs in 10 communities around Boston, tells us how to start your own urban sports program.

If you're interested in being involved in sports outreach, seek out an established program by surfing the web, contacting the national governing body for the sport of your choice, or simply calling up someone who runs a program. (Regardless of the sport, they'll know what's going on around the country and should be able to help you network.)

Another option is to start a community team or program yourself. Our sports outreach veterans say to start small, however. "If it's a good idea and it's popular, it will grow faster than you want it to," warns Zack Lehman. Lehman, 27, is the executive director of MetroLacrosse, an organization that supports lacrosse programs in 10 communities around Boston.

Lehman says anyone who is considering starting an urban sports program needs to focus on three main things: raising money, getting kids interested, and securing facilities and a competition schedule. For funding, Lehman turned to friends and relatives, got local businesses (from pizza joints to funeral parlors) to sponsor players, sold T-shirts, and had kids stand outside grocery stores soliciting money. "We had bake sales, for crying out loud," says Lehman.

That first year, the collective efforts brought in $15,000 to cover equipment costs, buses for the games, and sundry expenses. Lehman set up a 13-game schedule against prep school junior varsity teams simply by calling up the athletic directors of all the prep schools in the area and asking them to play his team. ("Don't set [kids] up with a varsity schedule where they're going to get crushed. Give them a chance to learn the game," he says.)

Like Lehman says, if you've got something good, it grows fast. "Year two we had 160 kids and 20 coaches and a much bigger budget. We formed a board of directors, filed for tax-exempt status, incorporated, had monthly board meetings, and started a core of volunteer parents to do everything from cutting oranges for games to watching the clock," he says.

The most important difference the second year of the program, however, was the addition of an educational component. Lehman and friends took over an abandoned storefront, put in computers, hired a part-time learning center coordinator, and recruited volunteer tutors to work with kids in the program. "There aren't many things that catch kids' attention these days, and if you can find one, like lacrosse, you've got to leverage it," says Lehman. Furthermore, he says, in order to go after larger grants, you need to offer something beyond a sports program, whether it's drug and alcohol prevention or academic tutoring.

For his first three years with the program, Lehman didn't take a penny of salary. He was a third-year law student when he began the neighborhood team and later worked full-time in law while running the program. Only after he left his corporate law job to work full-time on replicating the program in other communities did he begin to be paid.

Traditionally, Lehman explains, parents have taken on the role of volunteer coach for community sports programs, and it's never been in the spirit of the organizations to pay these people. He says, however, that the climate is changing, particularly in urban communities. "Great programs don't just come out of nowhere and last forever. You have to have someone who runs them, and volunteers get burnt out." While coaching positions may continue to draw on volunteers, there will be a growing number of paid positions for administrators in organizations like these.

If you're starting an urban sports program, any sport will be beneficial, Lehman says, "but there's something about starting this kind of traditionally suburban type sport that opens kids' eyes. They're saying, 'I can compete with those kids in the suburbs in lacrosse, maybe I can compete with them in the classroom, maybe I can compete with them in the workforce.'" And believing they can compete is half the battle.







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