We are often asked why we focus our full-time coaches on low-income schools. There are many reasons, but some days these reasons are more profound than others.
Not too long ago, I led our East Bay Junior Coach Conference in Richmond, California. More than 125 fourth and fifth graders from 10 schools in West Contra Costa joined 15 Playworks coaches and staff at Lincoln Elementary in the city’s Iron Triangle area. It was a spectacular sunny day after a week of rain. The kids played and learned new games, worked on conflict resolution skills, practiced team building activities and had a lot of fun.
Near the end of the day, as the last groups were finishing their activities, gunshots rang out nearby. While the shots weren’t close enough to evacuate, we quickly made plans to move the students if the action drew closer.
Sadly, this is nothing new to Richmond students or to the hundreds of thousands of children who live in areas where gunshots and sirens are part of the fabric of the community.
Our coaches, teachers and principals tell us about the impact of violence in their community and how it affects students on and off the playground. For too many of our children, school is a refuge surrounded by guns, drug dealers and gang activity. For these kids, recess may be the only time they get to go out on the playground and “just be kids.”
Kids are resilient, but in this type of turmoil it is more important than ever that they have the opportunity to play. We are particularly proud of our junior coaches, who are singled out by their schools and teachers as leaders and have an opportunity to make a difference in their community at a young age. Gangs start forming as early as second grade; something as simple as playing respectfully and inclusively with one another can make a difference to a community.
The Junior Coach Conference—like doing homework in the after school program or playing basketball or volleyball in a league—gives students a place to do the right thing and be in the right place. That’s especially important in a neighborhood where it would be pretty easy to be a few blocks away and be in the wrong place doing the wrong thing.
That’s why safe, healthy play is so important for these kids—and why we’re so committed to letting these kids just be kids.