Illustration: Dan Page
As school districts across the country continue to shrink their budgets, physical education is a major casualty. An estimated $3.5 billion was cut from public school sports between 2009 and 2011, and only a third of teens from low-income families now take part in school sports. This affects not only their health (almost one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese) but also their future: Research shows that student athletes are less likely to drop out of high school. The effects on girls are especially profound. According to a study in Health Psychology, girls who participate in sports are more likely to have high self-esteem and may have a lower risk of developing depression.
While sports nonprofits have been popping up across the country to fill the gap left by slashed P.E. classes, many of these groups lack the budget to hire and train coaches, limiting the number of kids they can help. One solution: Coach Across America (CAA), an innovative program developed by the nonprofit Up2Us to teach coaches how to address self-esteem and community issues their team members might face. The coaches then volunteer with programs in underserved communities. More than experience, the coaches need a desire to work with kids and a love of exercise. "This isn't about creating NBA stars," says Paul Caccamo, founder of Up2Us. "It's about helping kids develop life skills that will propel them to succeed. Too many children feel left behind at school, but every child gets a chance to be a leader during practice."
For the coaches, the greatest reward is the impact they have off the field. Says Zalikah Templeton, who volunteers in Los Angeles as a cheerleading coach for girls ranging from 5 to 15 years old, "I'm teaching these young ladies more than just cheering. They're learning how to respect themselves and build character. I'm showing them how to shine."
Justine Gilroy-Jones, a front-desk manager at a gym who spends her free time as an after-school sports and nutrition coach for first and second graders, has also experienced the transformative power of sports firsthand: "Being a coach has given my life greater purpose. I get such satisfaction helping the little athletes gain confidence in their physical abilities. Over the past year, I've seen a dramatic improvement in their grades—that's what makes this so fulfilling."
To date, CAA coaches have mentored 85,000 young athletes, including Stacya Baker, 17, who credits her dance squad's volunteer coaches with having an enormous influence on her life. "My mom put me in the program because I had a bad attitude, my grades were low, and I wasn't excited about my future," she says. "My coaches never gave up on me, and I'm a better person for it." Baker starts college this fall and plans to major in biology. There are thousands of kids like her who need someone cheering them on. To learn how to get involved, go to Up2Us.org/coach-across-america.
Next: 3 places you can volunteer while getting fit