Columbia considers city-wide youth sports initiative

The city of Columbia is considering a plan to offer a city-wide youth recreational sports program that mixes mentoring and athletics.

Spurred on by Mayor Steve Benjamin’s efforts to find gang-prevention strategies, the city youth sports initiative would create neighborhood youth sports leagues in baseball, basketball, soccer and football through a combined effort of volunteers from school districts, law enforcement and community.

Jeff Caton, director of parks and recreation, presented the program Wednesday afternoon to the Economic and Community Development Committee. Caton said the success of the program would rest on a three-pronged strategy of engaging the most affected groups — adults, youth and the community.

The program will serve kids between the ages of 4 and 18. It will be open to all children, but city officials hope to engage disadvantaged youth who don’t participate in school sports when they get older or need an alternative from criminal activity.

“The older 17 or 18 years old will have something to do rather than be out on the streets,” Assistant City Manager Allison Baker said.

Caton said the program would be structured so school attendance zones would represent districts to build the leagues. Physical education teachers and coaches from local middle and high schools within the attendance zone would become presidents of each league. Coaches would be requested to offer a mentor component during practice.

“Instead of a large program, you have a conglomeration of multiples that can feed into a big program,” Caton said.

Park facilities within the attendance zones would be used to hold practices and competitions. Caton said using attendance zones would eliminate issues with transportation and create a familiar environment for the participants. The sports league also could serve as a feeder program to the local middle and high schools that need talent on their teams.

Caton said it would take a coordinated effort to get the program off the ground. City officials plan to initiate a marketing plan that involves reaching out to Parent Teacher Associations, churches, neighborhood associations, school athletic directors and law enforcement.

Registration for the programs would be set up at local schools. Caton also said sports clinics and contacts from the parks and recreation registry could be other options to engage kids to participate in the program.

Incentives for adults would come in the form of community sponsor plaques, a volunteer banquet and coach certification for volunteers.

Financial support would come from private donations as well as city funds. Recreation Foundation Scholarships would be offered to young people who couldn’t afford the cost of the program.

“We want to make sure money is not an object,” Caton said.

Baker said the mayor and City Council’s full support is needed to galvanize all of Columbia around the initiative.

“The power of your political office pulls a lot of weight with some of the organizations that are critical,” he said.

Caton said his department could get the program operating by spring in time for baseball season.

Committee members seemed to be behind the initiative. Chairman Moe Baddourah recommended that mentally disabled youth have options to participate in the program as well.

“That’s a need. It’s something that parents don’t have,” Baddourah said.

Sam Davis agreed with Baddourah, requesting that disabled youth be incorporated with other children so as not to create division between the two.

“They become an object of discussion instead of participation,” he said.

Baker said the parks and recreation department has a relationship with the Carolina Panthers professional football team through their Challenger Program and that the relationship could be utilized in the city’s own sports initiative.

Leona Plaugh asked Caton to consider healthier food options at the park buildings where sports will take place as well as in concessions.

“What we have in our park buildings is not healthy. You don’t even have a healthy food alternative,” Plaugh said.

Baddourah also said the city could partner with local food trucks to serve healthy alternatives during competitions.

Caton said he would update council members about their recommendations and program costs in two weeks when the initiative will be presented at the next council work session. The work session is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 10.

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