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Philadelphia youth sports organizations adapt to COVID-19

The Lighthouse Field at 101 E. Erie Ave. in North Philadelphia. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

As some Philadelphia schools sit out the fall sports season, non-school affiliated youth sports in the Kensington area continue to adjust for an uncertain future due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Aug. 6, the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Pennsylvania Department of Education released a joint recommendation to postpone school and recreational youth sports until Jan. 1, 2021 to protect children from COVID-19. The departments stated that school and non-school affiliated youth sports programs should halt competitions, intramural play, and scrimmages but could still train kids on an individual basis. 

This was challenged by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA), who wrote in a Aug. 6 press release that they were “tremendously disappointed” by the state’s recommendation. Following a 25-5 vote by the PIAA board of directors, fall sports in Pennsylvania were approved — but not mandated — to start on Aug. 24, meaning that each school district or school entity would need to make the decision itself. 

Locally, the School District of Philadelphia and Philadelphia Catholic high schools cancelled their fall sports seasons, leaving those young athletes without an outlet for physical activity and mentoring. 

The city issued a new guidance on Sept. 1 for recreational activities and sports. Competitions are prohibited for high-risk sports, such as soccer, tackle football, and wrestling. Training for skill building is allowed, but scrimmages within the same team that involve contact aren’t allowed. Competitions and non-competitive recreational activities for low-risk sports, like softball and flag football, are allowed. 

In Kensington and across Philadelphia, non-school affiliated youth sports organizations, such as MVP 360 and Kensington Soccer Club, are staying connected with their members after changing their programming due to the pandemic. These groups are also putting together their plans for the fall season.  

One youth sports group leader said that with limited resources and COVID-19 restrictions, small, inner-city sports organizations will be at a disadvantage. Another leader sees this as a wake-up call to make local sports more inclusive. 

Here’s how local youth sports organizations stayed connected:

This past spring and summer, local organizations scrambled to continue sports programming during the pandemic. Many organizations pivoted from in-person training to digital exercises and mentoring over Zoom.

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Coach Mike of the Kensington Soccer Club leads a virtual “Coach’s Corner” to help athletes practice skill work through video exercises. (Courtesy of KSC YouTube Channel)

Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative: Utilizing virtual summer camps

Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative (PYSC), an intermediary group for non-traditional, sports-based youth development organizations, distributed sports kits with balls, equipment, and instruction guides to support Game On Philly!, a five-year initiative to increase the number of children who participate in sports-based youth development. 

Game on Philly!, which launched in March, went virtual due to the pandemic. One of their summer programs was Game On Philly!: Camp from Home, a six-week-long virtual camp to encourage social distancing.

“If you can’t gather with your friends and shoot a basketball, at least you can have one in your house that you can go out on the sidewalk and dribble,” said Beth Devine, executive director of PYSC. “We felt compelled to try to make that happen for as many kids as we could.”

During the summer, about 85 middle schoolers from six Philadelphia public schools participated in Game on Philly!: Camp from Home, and received PYSC sports kits and food boxes. The children accessed workout videos and activity challenges through a private PYSC Youtube channel. For one of the challenges, the kids had to teach a family member their favorite moves from one of the workout videos. 

Through Game on Philly!, PYSC also distributed sports kits and activity kits to 2,700 homes participating in other virtual summer camps hosted by the city’s Office of Children and Families’ Out-of-School Time providers. 

Devine said PYSC hopes to expand their virtual programming in the future to incentivize kids to get active. The organization also plans to create an app that gives kids activity challenges in order to win points.

Beat the Streets: Online mentoring and workout videos for wrestlers

Beat the Streets, a national organization, provides mentoring, academic support, and wrestling programs for at-risk youth. The organization’s Philadelphia chapter runs 30 programs throughout the city. 

Because wrestling requires close contact between athletes, even modified programs can struggle to promote social distancing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that close-contact sports, such as wrestling or basketball, focus on individual skill building instead of competitions and limit how long players are near each other. 

Following COVID-19 shutdown orders in March, Beat the Streets immediately moved their mentoring program online and assembled a team of staff members and mentors to check in on students each week. 

“We’ve been doing the best we can to adapt, but it’s certainly different because we’re used to running programs out of schools or community centers and then at our office or a mentoring center location,” said Ben Reiter, senior director of advancement at Beat the Streets Philadelphia.

To keep the young wrestlers active, Beat the Streets launched their national Million Minutes campaign this past spring. The campaign consists of workout videos on the organization’s social media. Participants are expected to follow along and then log the number of minutes they’ve completed. The organization has already surpassed its goal of logging at least 1 million minutes, Reiter said. 

Kensington Soccer Club: Off the field, coaches conduct mental health check-ins over Youtube

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Headquarters of the Kensington Soccer Club at 307 W. Dauphin Street Philadelphia. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Before the pandemic hit, Kensington Soccer Club, which serves youth in Kensington and other neighborhoods, was expecting 2020 to be a big year. The athletes did well during their last indoor season and were looking forward to competing in championships in Spring 2020 — until the city shut down. 

For the past several months, the young athletes and their coaches only saw each other through Zoom. The club also utilized their Youtube channel for their “Kensington Soccer Club Coaches Corner” series, where coaches demonstrate exercises and spread mental health awareness. 

Virtual programming helps keep Kensington Soccer Club members connected to the sport, but coaches said it can’t replace the in-person connection between the athletes and staff.

“We miss that family that we normally had on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” said Michael Kane, one of the club’s coaches. “You would normally see four or five kids out on the field. Now, you just see me when I drop by [the field] and it just leaves a really empty feeling.”

MVP 360: Opportunity for collaboration through local partnerships 

MVP 360 is a youth sports organization that promotes education, emotional well-being, health, and fitness in Philadelphia. Like many other organizations, the group’s programming was affected by the pandemic 

Normally, MVP 360’s spring soccer sessions have about 100 players, but participation for their Spring 2020 session dwindled due to COVID-19 safety restrictions. Refusing to completely lose the season, MVP 360 President Felix Agosto looked for an alternative solution.

“One of the adjustments that I made was trying to reach out to other people who had more resources, so that we [could] continue serving the community,” Agosto said. 

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Lighthouse Field sitting empty on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

By resources, Agosto wasn’t talking about space. MVP 360 plays at Lighthouse Field, the sports complex owned by nonprofit The Lighthouse at 101 E. Erie Ave. in North Philadelphia. The real issue was that MVP 360 needed more people to help enforce COVID-19 safety guidelines among the players and the equipment. 

As a solution, they partnered with nonprofit Safe-Hub Philadelphia for a joint soccer season this summer. The two organizations worked together through Safe-Hub’s FairPlay soccer program to hold a shortened summer session with 35 players total. Safe-Hub’s volunteers assisted with temperature and mask checks. 

Safe-Hub Philadelphia, the first North American Safe-Hub location for the international nonprofit organization AMANDLA, provides safe spaces for afterschool youth sports programs and youth development. Prior to this summer, Safe-Hub and MVP 360 had an existing relationship since they partnered up in early 2020 to build up a soccer program but had to halt their plans due to the pandemic.

In the future, Agosto hopes to partner with more local organizations in order to safely get their other programs running again.

Fall 2020 and beyond 

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The Kensington Soccer Club fields sit unused at Eric Casiano Field in Kensington on Sept. 10, 2020. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Kensington Soccer Club held multiple Zoom meetings to discuss whether or not to have a fall season and, if so, how to remain six feet apart.

“If the school districts are having Zoom meetings at the start of the school year instead of in-person, then we already have our answer on if we should start,” Kane said during one of the Zoom meetings.

But shifting to fully virtual programming isn’t completely accessible. Before this school year started, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said that about 18,000 School District of Philadelphia students still need internet access, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. 

In the end, Kensington Soccer Club decided to host two soccer programs this fall: a hybrid program and a fully-virtual program. The hybrid model includes two days of in-person practices and a third day of virtual training.

As for Beat the Streets’ wrestlers, the organization continues to host virtual workouts and mentoring sessions this fall. Reiter said that the organization plans to hold some level of in-person programming at their mentoring center and is looking at ways to offer wrestling workouts while social distancing.

For MVP 360, the lack of activity earlier this year left a financial hole, but the organization is trying to be optimistic by moving forward with their programming Agosto said. On Aug. 25, MVP 360 began a modified softball program that adheres to the City’s sports guidelines. Agosto also plans to keep kids active by hosting free baseball and softball clinics, which will be limited to 20 children per group, in collaboration with The Lighthouse.

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The concession stand at the Lighthouse field are currently closed due to COVID-19. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

But, MVP 360 won’t be able to run all their usual programming. To remain accessible to low-income families, MVP 360’s various sports programs cost about $45, which covers six to eight weeks of training and uniforms. In the past, Agosto has been able to set those low prices and still fund activities like college visits, camps, and sports clinics, due to sponsorships and funding programs, he said. This year, however, he doesn’t have those options for additional activities. 

“It basically comes down to if you have resources, if you have the funding to buy thermometers and the masks, and you have the partners that are going to help you run a sport, it looks like you’re okay.” Agosto said. “But if you’re a program that runs inner city sports and don’t have the resources, you’re left out.”

For youth sports organizations like MVP 360, the pandemic has made it more difficult to run their typically affordable programs for low-income families. And, if those organizations were to go out of business, low-income families would have fewer options since youth sports can be expensive.

According to a 2018 survey from The Aspen Institute, parents spend an average of $693 across the 21 sports included in the survey. Additionally, some parents who were surveyed spent $12,000 or more in a single year for sports like baseball, gymnastics, ice hockey, skiing, snowboarding, swimming, and tennis. The 2018 median household income of the survey respondents was $70,000.  

In the Kensington-area, the median household income for Census Tract 178, which runs along Kensington’s main corridor, was $20,438 in 2018, according to 2018 American Community Survey 5-year estimates data gathered from Census Reporter. Census Tract 163, which covers the area where Kensington Soccer Club’s clubhouse is located, had a median household income of $18,569 in 2018.   

Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative’s Beth Devine sees this current situation as an opportunity to make sports more inclusive so children from all kinds of households can play. Bringing back recreation leagues, which are more affordable leagues composed of several teams from the same neighborhood or area, would be a good opportunity in low-income areas, she said.  

“This kind of shutdown — if you will, although there are plenty of groups still out there doing their regular stuff — it’s an opportunity to recreate systems that reach more kids,” Devine said.


Editors: Claire Wolters, Zari Tarazona / Designer: Henry Savage

Kensington Voice is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly.

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