Lately, I’ve been reading a book by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times called The World Is Flat. The book discusses globalization and outlines how we can easily communicate with countries around the globe and what it all means--at least to him.
In January, I re-learned what it means to me. At that time, my organization, the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), hosted a special meeting of international representatives to discuss our ongoing international sport initiative, Game On! Youth Sports, which seeks to bring sports to children everywhere.
The Importance Of Youth Sports
Most people--and certainly everyone in the parks and recreation field--would agree about the importance of sports in the lives of children. When you ask yourself, “Why do children play sports?” what are the first words that come to mind? Without being too presumptuous, I would say they are similar to “fun, health, teamwork and dedication.”
I know it was exactly those ideas that led me to found NAYS 25 years ago. I wanted to help ensure that these adjectives continue to describe the American child’s sports experience. But, at our meeting,
I was reminded why we started this initiative. Sports play a much different role here in the United States than they do elsewhere. For example, in countries such as Zambia, Cameroon and Ghana--where disease, HIV/AIDS and poverty plague residents--sports are an escape, a way for children to momentarily forget their hardships and brighten their lives.
It was this simple realization that pushed us to start Game On! Youth Sports in 2003, and is the same idea that drives its success today.
Game On!--Progress Report
This year, we welcomed regional representatives from Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America. These gracious people--who, just as you, are committed to helping people, especially children, through recreation--traveled to the United States to give us an update on what, if any, progress was being made in their countries.
What was the good news? Each country reported that more children had access to and were participating in sports programs than ever before. For example, in Africa, the countries of Cameroon, Ghana and Zambia reported they had made great strides in developing sports programs and lessons and acquiring and passing out the necessary equipment.
The representatives from the Caribbean reported that a pilot test of the Game On! School program is under way in several countries. They’re working to measure the effectiveness of sports in their children’s lives. I don’t need to wait to see the data to know that the feedback will be positive.
Sadly, not all news is positive. In many cases, these representatives reported their children are still living in poverty-stricken and disease-plagued areas and may have little hope for real change any time soon.
Sports--Agents Of Change
Just 10 years ago, we would still be in the “talking” stage with these countries. Today, we are able to fast-forward the process and better provide what they specifically need because communication is almost instantaneous (think e-mail and related Web technologies).
Now, we can communicate, plan, and implement our ideas efficiently and quickly, which means new and used sports equipment is constantly streaming to the right location at the right time.
For example, we recently sent sports equipment to Darfur, Sudan, where the very lives of children are threatened every day. We know these children are threatened by genocide, hunger, disease and other unthinkable maladies, and we know sending sports equipment can be seen as sending water to a drowning man, but we believe sports act as a valuable agent for change.
Perhaps the response from a U.S. Embassy employee in Darfur says it best: “You can’t imagine how fantastic it is to see the joy on these children’s faces as they receive just a ball to play with. These are children, and all children need and love to play, no matter what the conditions.”
The bottom line is that we all need to think of the world as flat. We must continue to promote the value of sports and recreation to our neighbors globally, especially children.
In the United States, nearly 25 million children can play organized sports in our facilities. Now it’s time that we all got on the Internet or picked up our phones to explore how we can help those less fortunate around the world enjoy what we take for granted. The world is flat--and if you look closely enough, you’ll be able to see someone who needs your help.
Fred Engh is founder of The National Alliance for Youth Sports in West Palm Beach, Fla. For more information about the Game On! Youth Sports initiative, please visit www.iays.org.