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A volleyball player with Kansas’ Great Bend High School team created a clever way to practice at home with plywood boards and a basketball hoop.

Storyful

In the midst of the coronavirus shutdown, the sports world has many worries. We worry about when the NBA is coming back. We worry about the timetable for Major League Baseball. We worry about whether we’ll have college football and the NFL in the fall.

We’re worrying about all the wrong things.

Nicoletta Nerangis’ Run4Fun youth running program for 2,000 children in at-risk New York neighborhoods is no longer running at all. Due to the pandemic, she has had to furlough 10 of her 12 employees, many of them coach-mentors. She was one of the 10.

But she can still volunteer, so last week, she joined a Zoom workout call with two of her coach-mentors to find only one of her runners online, a 13-year-old girl alone in an apartment.

“How are you doing?” the adults asked the teenager. “Are you getting out?”

The answer shocked them all.

“No, I haven’t been outside for a month.”

In Atlanta, there is no soccer being played in low-income neighborhoods these days in Phil Hill’s Soccer in the Streets program. The organization instead is serving hot lunches to 1,000 children over several weeks. It has also started an online program to help 200 children with creative writing, reading and drawing assignments. After they finish, they receive a soccer skills video from their coach. If the kids don’t have access to a laptop, one of the coaches will go over the lessons with them on the phone.

Hill has also been delivering groceries on the hard-hit west side of Atlanta. As he started unloading packages of food out of his SUV recently at an apartment complex, a girl came up to him and spotted a stash of soccer balls in his car.

“Can I have a ball?” she asked.

He gave her one.

“She was off with this thing,” he said. “I’ve never seen a smile so big on an 11-year-old’s face.”

Word quickly got out in the apartment complex.

“Another kid popped out, and another kid,” Hill said. “It spread like wildfire. In the space of 10 minutes, I had all these kids around, trying to keep them at a safe distance. It was just the power of a ball. Some of them didn’t want to use it for soccer, they wanted it for basketball, but who cares? I had 24 soccer balls in the back of my car. I gave them all away.”

Programs like those run by Nerangis and Hill are among the thousands of youth sports organizations that have been forced to shut down or seriously curtail their services during the pandemic. While almost all U.S. kids’ sports programs are in some sort of financial trouble – with many furloughing or laying off coaches or even closing their doors for now – programs serving low-income children often are missed more than those in the suburbs and other areas, if only because the kids rely on them for much more than just sports.

“It’s a safe space for them after school and on weekends,” said Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, an Olympic gold medalist and member of the steering committee of the PLAY Sports coalition, which is supporting youth sports organizations during the pandemic. “It’s a place for them to develop skills, get the education support that they sometimes are lacking and receive the kind of mentorship that in many cases only coaches can provide. They’re really life-saving programs in many cases for these youth.”

In New York, when Nerangis, a licensed masters social worker, and her colleagues heard the 13-year-old say she had not left her small apartment in a month, they slowly talked her through a plan to get outside.

“She had a mask, so we encouraged her to put her mask on, and go out front, even just on the stoop, before walking on the sidewalk,” Nerangis said. “We told her that sunlight is so important. We asked her where her family members were. We also got in touch with her school and they were touching base with the family, and we continue to check in with her.”

Meanwhile, Hill needs more soccer balls. He’d like to give one to every kid he runs across as he delivers meals.

“Two months ago, we were just in the soccer business,” he said. “Now, we’re in the logistics business. We’re in the food business. We’re in the education business. For us, it was just a case of retooling what we did. It actually honed us in more on our mission, which always has been about how we can use soccer to help kids in low-income neighborhoods.” 

Hill and Nerangis are doing their best to find funding where they can, mostly from grants and donors. The PLAY Sports coalition is trying to help by asking Congress for an economic stabilization fund for youth sports during these difficult times. “That would be a lifesaver,” Nerangis said, “a complete lifesaver.”

Hill’s program has been around for 30 years, Nerangis’ for six years. They hope to have their kids back playing sports soon enough. In the meantime, the strong roots they have developed in their communities are now serving as a lifeline for something much more important than sports. 

“Because we have these connections through working with the kids, we now are able to stay with them through this time on the phone, on Zoom and via email,” Nerangis said. “If it wasn’t for sports in the first place, we wouldn’t know where the kids are to be able to check in on them and get them the help they might need now, when it really matters.”

So the soccer players aren’t playing soccer and the runners aren’t running, but it’s doubtful that these two organizations have ever been more meaningful than they are today.

For more information or to contact these programs, visit www.run4funusa.org and www.soccerstreets.org.

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