Twelve-year-old Alex Esparza thinks of himself as a trainer and coach.
Now a sixth-grader at Henry World School in southwest Denver, he likes to return frequently to his southwest Denver elementary school to work with younger kids involved in America SCORES Denver, the combined soccer and poetry nonprofit program that transformed his life.
When Alex joined SCORES at nearby Traylor Academy, he was a “very shy, withdrawn” eight-year-old, fresh out of chemotherapy treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, said his mother, Jessica Kirkpatrick.
“SCORES opened him up,” Kirkpatrick said. “It gave him an opportunity to come out of his shell and be a team leader.”
Alex agrees. “SCORES made me stop being shy,” he said. “Once I started playing soccer, I started answering questions and participating in things.”
Had it not been for SCORES, Alex, and his younger sister Alayna, 10, would have had no access to organized sports. Kirkpatrick describes herself as “a part-time student, part-time worker, full-time parent.” Her husband works full-time, but their combined income is modest, and they are still paying off a mountain of medical bills related to Alex’s illness.
“It should be a right of children to be active,”
There’s no way they could afford several hundred dollars per kid to participate in programs at the local YMCA, let alone the many thousands of dollars it costs to participate in competitive club sports and travel teams.
“I hate to say it, but had it not been for SCORES, [Alex and Alayna] probably would have been focused on video games,” Kirkpatrick said.
And therein lies a huge and growing problem, in Colorado and across the nation. Despite the dogged efforts of a number of programs like America SCORES, children from low-income families find their access to organized youth sports programs limited by high and ever-escalating costs.
“The (youth sports participation) gaps are definitely widening,” said Risa Isard, a staff member with The Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program. “Youth sports has never been a bigger business, and we have never had a lower rate of participation from low-income youth.”
Isard pointed to a telling statistic from The Aspen Institute’s recent Project Play Sport for All/Play for Life report: In 2015, just 38 percent of children from U.S. homes with annual incomes of $25,000 or less participated in team sports, compared to 67 percent of kids from homes with incomes of $100,000 or above.
“It should be a right of children to be active,” said Shale Wong, MD, a pediatrician and director of child health policy and education at the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s Eugene S. Farley, Jr. Health Policy Center. “If you can establish playing sports as normal early, then it becomes engrained in kids’ lives and makes them want to stay involved in sports through their adult years.”
Low-income kids, however, face what Wong called a “triple whammy” that makes sports participation less likely. First, she said, in some low-income communities, playing outdoors might be perceived as unsafe. Second, many low-income communities lack organized sports programs.
Finally, and arguably worst, she said, “kids who could be extremely talented get priced out. And that just breaks my heart. It’s a huge societal mistake we’re making.”
That mistake has major ramifications because it affects not only children’s physical health, but their mental and social health as well, Wong said.
“There is so much in sports that enriches a child’s growth and development towards being healthy and happy,” she said. “That’s why I see it as a right.”
Health professionals and youth sports advocates point to another trend that has made access to sports for low-income youth more difficult: early specialization. Since 2008, the number of sports the average child athlete plays has declined from 2.3 to 1.9, according to The Aspen Institute’s State of Play report.
Coaches and parents often pressure kids beginning in elementary school to specialize in a sport “to fully develop their talents and play at a college, pro, or other elite levels,” the report says. But “it’s a myth.” In fact, a survey of U.S. Olympic athletes found that seven in 10 grew up as multisport athletes. Yet the trend persists.
Public school athletic programs also do what they can to help aspiring low-income athletes participate in competitive sports. Aurora Public Schools is notable among Colorado school districts for fully funding middle school as well as high school athletics out of its budget. Most other school districts with middle school sports programs raise private funds to help pay for them.
Aurora has funded its middle school sports programs for many years because being denied access to sports at younger ages leave kids unprepared to play team sports when they enter high school, said Mike Krueger, the district’s athletic director.
The APS board and superintendent “understand and appreciate the role athletics play in getting kids connected,” Krueger said. The district has found that middle school students who participate in sports have higher grade point averages, better attendance and fewer discipline problems.
Middle-schoolers pay $30 per season to play a sport, but the fee is waived for those who can’t afford it, Krueger said.
Part of the goal of the APS middle school sports program is allowing kids to compete who might otherwise not get the chance, Krueger said. But the benefits go far beyond the opportunity to compete.
“It’s not just the competition, but what more do they get out of being involved in it,” he said. “They develop leadership skills, teamwork, and a sense of cooperation and servant-leadership.”
Alex Esparza gained many of those skills during his years with America SCORES Denver. Now that he’s in sixth grade, he plans to take his soccer playing to the next level. His dad found him a competitive team to play on, fulfilling a long-time goal.
“I’m now obsessed with soccer,” he said.
Alan Gottlieb is a Writer, Editor and Consultant in Denver, Colorado. Reproduced with permission of The Colorado Trust (www.coloradotrust.org).