This content is sponsored by Point32Health

Sponsored by Point32Health

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.

Leveling the playing field: Local organizations aim to make youth sports equitable for low-income families

Cost is a barrier that often keeps kids from experiencing the many benefits of playing sports.

Boston is a city that understands the value of sports. And even more important than the major league teams that Titletown is known for are the area’s local youth leagues. Studies show physically active children and adolescents are at lower risk for obesity, smoking, drug use, and depression, according to the Aspen Institute’s Project Play. Youth athletes are also more likely to get higher test scores, attend college, and have higher self-esteem. 

However, sports and their benefits are often not equally accessible to all. In 2022, 59 percent of parents whose children play fall sports said the cost is a financial strain for their family. And while over half of parents earning six figures said their child would play on a fall sports team, just over a quarter of parents making $35,000 or less said their child would. 

Equipping youth 

“We decided we couldn’t live with the fact that kids in the modern structure don’t have ready access to play,” says Melissa Harper, cofounder and chief executive officer of Good Sports, a nonprofit based in Braintree, Mass., since 2003.

“It’s become a pay-to-play industry, and if you don’t have the resources, you are simply left on the sidelines.” — Melissa Harper

Good Sports receives large quantities of sporting goods from manufacturers with excess products and distributes them to athletic programs serving communities in need nationwide. This system creates a sustainability loop for the sporting goods industry while lowering the cost burden on youth sports programs.

Three young girls wearing athletic attire crouch to the ground in preparation for a race on a grassy turf.
Three young athletes wearing sneakers provided by Good Sports prepare for a race.

“We’re really looking to build the capacity of youth-serving organizations to be able to offer more and better programming to children in need,” Harper says. “That can come down to adding a sport, growing the number of kids that participate, reducing the cost, and offering more scholarships for families.” 

In its 20 years of operation, Good Sports has distributed over $100 million worth of equipment nationally, serving about 9.8 million kids. 

What kind of difference can sports equipment make? “We had a boy who was so excited about a new pair of shoes because he didn’t realize that the cleats that he was wearing were two sizes too small, and that’s why they were hurting his feet. Suddenly, he can run much differently,” Harper shares. “It’s really fundamental, the barrier of cost.”

Pivoting sports skills to life skills 

Mitchell Hercule, founder of Herc42skills Basketball Skill Development Program and Hoops Collaborative in Greater Boston, knows the difference sports can make in a young person’s life first hand. 

“I grew up in the Gallivan projects, and the Gallivan community center was a big part of my growth,” Hercule says, “not only as a basketball player but as a person as well. … The influence that they had on me just makes me want to pay it forward.” 

Hercule and his team at Herc42skills now work with athletes ages seven and up at free basketball camps, clinics, and tournaments to promote wellness and healthy behavior. 

A man in a red athletic shirt coaches a team of young athletes while standing on a basketball court.
Mitchell Hercule gives his team a pep talk on the court.

“Our key is bringing people into a safe environment where they can grow and make mistakes,” Hercule says. “As long as you’re consistently learning, that’s our focus.” And these young athletes are learning more than technical skills. Herc42skills aims to improve players’ confidence, mental toughness, teamwork, and more. 

Sharing that mission of teaching life skills through physical activity is another local nonprofit. “Girls on the Run reaches girls at a critical stage, strengthening their confidence at a time when society begins to tell them all the ways in which they are limited,” says Cyndi Roy Gonzalez, executive director of Girls on the Run Greater Boston, which serves girls in grades 3-8 in Eastern Massachusetts. “Our program addresses the whole girl, underscoring the connection between physical and emotional health.”

4 girls stand next to each other to smile at the camera with their backs showing off their "Girls on the Run" capes.
“Girls on the Run” runners smile for a photo.

A study commissioned by Girls on the Run found that 85 percent of girls who participated in the program improved in confidence, competence, character development, or connection to others. Girls who were the least active at the start of the season also experienced a 40 percent increase in physical activity. 

“At Girls on the Run, we never turn a girl away from the program because her family can’t afford to pay the program fee,” says Roy Gonzalez. “We rely on the generous support of our donors, like those at Point32Health, our grant partners, and our sponsors, to provide scholarships to girls in need.” 

Pitching for progress

While working as a Boston police officer in Mattapan and Dorchester, José Ruiz saw social determinants of health firsthand, including a lack of safe recreational spaces. 

“Because people weren’t getting these things, it was a lifetime of physical misery,” he says. “I wanted to do something different.”

Ruiz was right to make this connection. “When children experience socioeconomic adversity, such [as] not having enough food at home or safe places to exercise, this can have significant negative impacts on their development. They can have a harder time concentrating in school and may be at higher risk of developing certain chronic disease[s],” says Alon Peltz, Harvard Medical School assistant professor of population medicine at the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute. “Initiatives that focus on supporting parents, building resilience, and ensuring that children have safe play spaces can be particularly effective.”

Ruiz founded South End Little League Baseball, worked as director of the Red Sox Foundations’ RBI program, and has organized and hosted baseball, softball, and tee-ball programs in Boston for decades. 

A team made up of multiple players from training programs funded by Good Sports poses at the Mayor’s Cup Softball Tournament.

“Kids were just missing the opportunities of participating in a place that was safe and a place where you had caring adults,” Ruiz says. He credits the success of his sports programs to making the environments both safe and fun. He also stressed making sure no kid felt like they were lacking in support, encouragement, or gear.

“You dress them the same; they feel the same. You treat them the same; they are the same,” Ruiz says. “Kids already know what they’re lacking and everything else, but if they go on the field, if they go on a court, and they all look the same, they’re all treated the same; there are no poor children. There are just children.” 

Programs like these need support to keep running and growing. “We’re always looking for people to be a part of our village because I feel like the bigger the village, the more people we can work with,” Hercule says. “We want to get them out and get them to a gym, get them to a safe space, and continue to create more safe spaces for these young people to develop.”

After reading this article, to what degree do you agree with the following statement?

Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan, Point32Health companies, are committed to supporting physical and mental health for people of all ages and life stages.

Point32Health is a not-for-profit health and well-being organization, guiding and empowering healthier lives for all. Together, our family of companies, which includes Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute’s Department of Population Medicine and Tufts Health Plan, help our members and communities navigate the health care ecosystem through a broad range of health plan offerings and tools.

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.