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Sports program offers children free play time

Aug 14, 2014

Scott Radley, The Hamilton Spectator

They laugh when they try to describe the first couple of weeks of their new volleyball league.

The level of play is not at what you would call elite just yet. Which is a nice way of saying the next rally between two teams will be the first. The ball often goes over the net, but thus far it doesn't make it back. Not too often, anyway.

"Most of these kids have never played organized sports, " says Willie Brown, breaking into a big smile. "It makes it fun for coaching."

He's not complaining. He's far from complaining. Rather, the executive director of the Peoples Church and Peoples Community Sports is thrilled these kids are playing. It's just that he sometimes can't believe how many are playing.

Two years ago, Kirk Rookwood showed up at the church on Mohawk Road near Garth. He'd been living in Los Angeles and running a community sports program in a low-income community after doing the same in the Jane-Finch area in Toronto. Almost the minute he walked into the building, he noticed the gym. Then tracked down the pastor. "I said, ‘Are you guys using the gym for anything?' "

When the answer was no, he pitched his idea. Then he got Brown, the church's executive director and a former high school basketball coach, on board and began trying to replicate what he'd been doing in California.

Rookwood had no idea he was standing on the edge of one of the poorer neighbourhoods in the city. According to a 2012 United Way study, 35 per cent of residents - and almost half the children - in the Rolston Neighbourhood (bounded by the Linc to Mohawk and West 5th to Garth) live below the poverty line.

"I just knew there would be pockets that would respond, " Rookwood says. "There are always poor pockets."

The two organizers walked door to door handing out flyers telling of a single sign-up date for a new basketball league for kids aged six to 13. Then hoped a few boys would show up. The offer? It was free. No costs. No hidden fees. No catch. Just sign up and you'd get a shirt, a ball and a league in which to play. They had no idea if anyone would respond. So their jaws dropped when 70 kids signed up that day. And when their moms and dads came armed with some tough questions.

"All the parents started asking, ‘Where's the girls' league?' " Brown smiles.

Immediately, 70 grew to 120. With girls. Which went up to 200 for indoor soccer. Which jumped to 230 for spring basketball. Which leaped to 270 for outdoor soccer.

Within a year, they had to stop advertising and actually had to turn kids away because they didn't have the physical space or the volunteers to keep up with the demand. They now go all day Saturday and Tuesday nights with 16 teams and are maxed out with nearly 1,300 kids participating in the five leagues they offer throughout the year. Some kids walk 45 minutes to games. Others come up by bus from the downtown. Something like 80 per cent had never played organized sports before.

It's a remarkable success story. But they aren't happy about the limitations that force them to cap their numbers.

"We're going to see if we can double that, " Rookwood says as he smiles at his partner, causing Brown to suffer what appears to be a minor panic attack.

They've received grants from SpecKids, the Trillium Foundation, Canadian Tire and Sport Chek. The church kicks in $12,000 a year as well as hundreds of hours of donated time by staff and members. Both men are at the church seven days a week now. Expanding would be a huge undertaking. But they know they probably need to.

"I believe if we opened it up and advertised, we could get thousands for one season, " Rookwood says. "The need is great."

It's also affecting kids in other ways. Rookwood says the point was never to be ultracompetitive or build stars, just to give opportunities. But he heard from a few of the program's alumni the other day. They just made their high school teams for the first time.

He beams when he tells the story.

So he's not worried about the level of play in those volleyball games that just started. It'll improve. It always does, now that the kids have a chance to play.

Did you know?

Tackling the root causes of poverty in children will help to break the low-income cycle and make a sustainable difference.


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