Students who participate in extracurricular sports and athletics go on to experience better grades, attendance, and overall improved health and wellness. Despite these well-documented benefits, however, children ages 6 to 12 from low-income households are half as likely to engage in sports or physical activity compared to children from wealthier households.
Teach For America alumni and corps members are looking to change this outcome by launching after-school athletic programs of their own, in many cases offering academic enrichment alongside the drills and competitions of their sport. Here, we meet six TFA alumni who are hard at work leveling the playing field of opportunity in their communities—cleats, rackets, stirrups, helmets, and all.
CINCINNATI SQUASH ACADEMY
In 2014, the nonprofit Cincinnati Squash Academy (CSA) opened its doors and partnered with schools in the underserved historical urban district Over-the-Rhine, a neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio. Academic Director Rachael Parker (Southwest Ohio’12) never played squash, or even knew much about the sport, when CSA approached her to lead its academic division and serve as community and partnership liaison.
A Kentucky native who came to Ohio as a corps member in 2012, Parker was inspired by the National Urban Squash model that aims at "bringing squash down from the Ivory Tower” to create pathways for kids from low-income communities to attend college on scholarship. “I thought, anything to be the carrot that would lead to more to more pathways to opportunity for our kids,” Parker says.
Students who attend CSA are recruited from local schools in fourth, fifth, or sixth grade and stay until they are old enough for college. Year-round CSA students receive over 100 hours of supervised academic and squash instruction—half of that time on the court and the other half dedicated to cultural activities and special projects.
In 2017, CSA received the Nonprofit of the Year award from the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce. Today, what inspires Parker most is the power of generational hope. “We are building future leaders who will hopefully come back and want to make their home even better,” says Parker.
DETROIT HORSE POWER
As a corps member teaching fifth grade on Detroit's west side, David Silver (Detroit ’14) drove past a vacant lot and saw an opportunity. “That would make a beautiful riding field,” Silver recalls thinking. By his second year teaching, the idea behind Detroit Horse Power was set in motion.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Silver grew up as a competitive horseback rider in New York’s Westchester County. In a sport typically reserved for wealthier families, Silver envisioned a program that would give underserved and at-risk youth space to develop the confidence, empathy, responsible risk-taking, and other emotional skills that come with horseback riding.
Detroit Horse Power launched as a nonprofit in 2015, offering two pilot summer camps serving 18 youth. Today, hundreds of city youth make their way to the camp each summer to learn how to ride, take care of horses, and hear from guest speakers.
Detroit Horse Power started its first weekly after-school program this fall, moving the program closer to Silver’s long-term goal of repurposing vacant land in Detroit, turning the space into an urban equestrian center offering year-round youth programming.
When Dan Leventhal (New York ’15) earned a spot on the Tufts University lacrosse team, he gained lifelong lessons in teamwork, sacrifice, trust, support, time management, and accountability—skills Leventhal used as a corps member teaching special education and math in the South Bronx area of New York City.
What started out with 25 students outfitted in donated equipment would soon evolve into Bronx Lacrosse. Formed in 2016, the organization aims to improve educational and life opportunities for underserved students through the sport of lacrosse
The program services roughly 100 boys and girls. Bronx Lacrosse players not only meet on the field but also gather multiple times per week for lacrosse-related activities and tutoring sessions in the classroom.
Leventhal's hopes inspire students within his classroom and provide exposure to outside opportunities. Through his efforts, Bronx Lacrosse continues to yield significant results, including participants’ increased attendance, commitment to school, and a spike in test scores and grades. Due to its tremendous success, Bronx Lacrosse recently expanded to another school, but for Leventhal, that's just the beginning.
“It's not only just a sports program but an academic program proven to get kids on track,” says Leventhal. “We want to give other students in the Bronx that same kind of opportunity."
MEMPHIS INNER CITY RUGBY
Memphis Inner City Rugby (MICR) was founded with a mission to expand athletic and academic opportunity for kids in low-income neighborhoods in Memphis, Tennessee.
Shane Young (Memphis ’12) and Devin O’Brien (Memphis ’12) met while serving in the corps in 2012. The two former college rugby players bonded over their love for the game and their drive to change the landscape of opportunity in their community. Later that year, MICR was born.
The nonprofit partners with schools in low-income neighborhoods that lack the resources to provide traditional after-school sports like football. "We're excelling at breaking down barriers to access in a sport once dominated by suburban areas and private schools," Young says.
Today, 200 high-schoolers from underserved areas in Memphis take to the rugby field in fall and spring. Students not only play in matches and practice eight to ten hours weekly, they also tackle mandatory study hall and yoga, too.
In 2017 alone, there was a major increase in college-bound, Division I alumni, including the program’s first female athlete starting on scholarship at Life University in Marietta, Georgia this year. Also, 11 MICR student-athletes are scheduled to compete in the USA Sevens international rugby tournament in Las Vegas.
Started by educators Katherine Leiva (Miami ’12) and Dido Balla (Miami ’11), FitLitoffers kids in underserved areas of South Florida a unique blend of personal growth through literature and fitness.
FitLit began in 2013, after Leiva was diagnosed as morbidly obese her first year teaching. At 300 pounds, Leiva’s doctor gave her an ultimatum: lose weight or end up like her parents, both of whom died from diabetic or heart-related illnesses at age 50.
Leiva went to Balla, a fellow corps member and English as a Second Language teacher, for help. The two began to work out after school, often running laps around the track while students looked on. Leiva also made dramatic changes to her diet, trading in deep-fried food for vegetarian fare. As her weight dropped, students took notice and began to come to Leiva and Balla with questions of their own. “The kids began to really open up to us, saying they needed our help. Poor health is cultural; it’s part of the socioeconomic factors we face,” Leiva says.
“The kids began to really open up to us, saying they needed our help. Poor health is cultural; it’s part of the socioeconomic factors we face.”
Balla and Leiva agreed to bring the students along on their workouts—on condition they read and practice their English first. Soon, FitLit was in full swing in their community.
Today, FitLit partners with Florida International University to offer summer and after-school programs in which “FitLitters” meet for three hours during the week to read, take part in discussion, and work out. Leiva remains wowed by the incredible stories, weight loss, and scholarships the program has helped to empower. “I’ve seen kids go on to college and whole families lose weight together,” she says. “It’s that kind of generational change that’s inspiring.”