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Wednesday, Nov 29, 2023

Play Equity: We’ve Only Scratched the Surface

It is gratifying that the Los Angeles Business Journal has recognized the significance of Play Equity and the commitment of the wide range of partners who contributed their time, effort and financial support to our Stay Active Stay Strong campaign. The campaign demonstrated the strength of the Play Equity Movement to harness the power of sport by bringing people together to ensure that our most vulnerable kids, from communities with longstanding inequities, received the equipment and support they needed to play and be healthy while at home during the most perilous moments of the pandemic.

Our corporate partners – Nike, Kole Imports, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Score Sports and WSS – as well as the steadfast leadership of our board, the legion of volunteers giving out equipment, especially LAUSD’s Beyond the Bell unit, and the logistics teams delivering gear across the region to the schools, were all united in this effort.  

Through this generosity and collaboration, the Play Equity Fund distributed 120,000 pieces of sports equipment, including balls, racquets, jump ropes and other gear, to the families of school kids enrolled in LAUSD, Compton, Pasadena and LA Archdiocese schools, at 60 sites across Los Angeles County.

The campaign involved more than putting this equipment in the hands of kids and families. Olympians, as well as athletes and coaches from the Chargers, Dodgers, Lakers and Rams, contributed a series of instructional videos showing kids how to stay active while at home. These videos were broadcast by LAUSD’s television network, posted online and drew responses from scores of children joining the workouts at home.  

Equally important was the supportive fundraising generated by the campaign. Individuals, foundations and other institutions contributed nearly $750,000 that helped us turn an inspired moment into extraordinary impact.

Any honor uniting schools, corporations, pro athletes, charitable organizations and people who want to help support underserved communities is rewarding. The truth, though, is that the Stay Active Stay Strong campaign was just one small step toward our larger goal of closing the Play Equity gap. As we move out of the pandemic with tentative first steps, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that all kids have the opportunity to experience the benefits of sport and play regardless of family income, race, gender or ability. A child’s opportunity to play should never be determined by where his or her family lives.

COVID-19 provided the impetus for the Stay Active Stay Strong campaign, but inequality in youth sports was a problem long before the pandemic. It will be worse now. We know that young people from low-income households are less likely to exercise and play sports. That inequality is reflected in the many public-school districts that have defunded enrichment programs, including sports and/or mandated PE for only one or two days per week, and by the pay-to-play youth sports culture and a lack of low-cost opportunities to play.

These problems will be worsened by this year of tragedies – of family deaths, confinement, isolation, parental unemployment and more than a year of online school. We have all heard stories about the toll of COVID, especially on poorer communities of color. A colleague recently told me about a young man, Jose, who prior to the pandemic thrived while playing soccer. After a year of living with six other family members in a two-bedroom apartment and no sports, his 13-year-old face is devoid of life. “He literally looks like another person,” he said.

The effects of remote learning will be long term. For some it may be permanent. McKinsey & Co. researchers predict Black and brown students will be the most adversely affected academically. Several reports indicate young people of all ages have increased stress and anxiety, and are struggling with mental health issues.

We have only scratched the surface. We must do more. A year after Stay Active Stay Strong, as schools reopen, we recognize after-school and summer enrichment such as sports are needed to rebuild childhood bonds of friendship, and promote mental and physical well-being. To succeed in school, kids need a place to feel happy and secure. We hope you are inspired to join our new endeavor by making a gift to the Spring Into Play campaign, launching on April 27th. With your support, this will be a collaborative effort to rebuild that environment.

While we are grateful for the willingness of dedicated friends in philanthropy, the private sector and school districts to work toward solutions, however these efforts must combine with a recognition by policymakers of the essential role that sport plays in the lives of young people. That awareness must be translated into legislation, policy, and funding for in-school, after-school and community-based programs.

Properly conceived and administered sports programs can provide physical and mental health benefits, foster teamwork and leadership, drive connections with adults and academics, and help young people build pathways to success. This is not empty rhetoric. It reflects a half century of research.

Play is a fundamental human right all kids deserve. It will not happen without public involvement and continued work toward closing the Play Equity gap.

Please join the movement to ensure all children have the same access and opportunities. Support Spring Into Play, the Play Equity Fund, the LA84 Foundation and countless other organizations who believe in the transformative value of youth sports. Healthy kids mean healthier communities – and a richer life for all of us.

Renata Simril is President of Play Equity Fund. To learn more, visit playequityfund.org.

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