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How community rec centers are creating welcoming environments for all children.

As our society emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of children are getting back to their normal routines. Recreation centers are once again becoming hubs for a very active and vulnerable population.

With this in mind, leaders from these centers across the country are ensuring their organizations provide their communities with a welcoming environment where children of all backgrounds feel comfortable.

Holly Metzger-Brown, the learn and play director of the York JCC, said the adoption of inclusive youth programming is a good starting point for such an important goal.

“All of our marketing is ‘Everyone is Welcome’,” said Metzger-Brown. “No matter what your background is, we welcome everyone. Everyone knows this place is like your home. When you walk into your home, you feel safe. All your beliefs, who you are, what you represent, no matter what you look like, no matter what you believe in — your home is safe.”

She said posting signs or posters with welcoming verbiage throughout facilities is effective but taking necessary action when needed is just as important.

For example, Metzger-Brown said if an individual is at the York JCC and fostering an unwelcoming attitude then they would be removed immediately.

Inclusive programming also can be manifested through the curriculum available at recreation center libraries and by hosting diverse guest speakers.

“The verbiage aligns with everyone’s behavior that enters that building on campus,” said Metzger-Brown. “Then the programming also aligns with all of those things. That becomes trust. Trust is defined in doing. When the community trusts us there’s a high probability they’ll stay and treat it like a second home.”

Metzger-Brown is a board-certified behavioral analyst who works with children who may need additional support by utilizing Applied Behavior Analysis therapy (ABA). These kids may require help going into sports, and they may need to work with a movement development program.

“They might need ABA therapy to prepare them for school, or they’re in school now and they just need additional support to be successful in that setting,” she said. “Parent education is where I then train the parents with ABA practices and their behavioral plan. Those are the unique programs we have at the York JCC.”

Another strategy in creating inclusive space for youth sports can be found at One Family Memphis.

Sarah Grai, the former director at One Family Memphis, said they serve as the umbrella organization for Memphis Rox — a nonprofit climbing gym in the city.

The gym is based on a “pay-what-you-afford” model where anyone can participate.

“Our location intentionally supports our mission of diversifying the sport of rock climbing,” said Grai. “No one is turned away from Memphis Rox, and everyone who comes through our doors receives the same access to the amenities our facility provides.”

One way to ensure everyone can take part is to require five volunteer hours per month for those who choose not to access the gym using traditional avenues. Those hours equate to a four-week membership.

“By reimagining currency, we’ve deconstructed the idea that money is all one has to offer,” said Grai. “At Rox, we believe it’s energy: mentorship, volunteerism — the time one lends in service of another.”

Another way they promote a welcoming environment is through staffing. 

Approximately 77% of Memphis Rox staff are people of color, and when possible, they try to hire people directly from the surrounding neighborhood.

“Our staff reflect our community,” said Grai. “In making the sport accessible, we strive for our team to reflect that. The sport of rock climbing, along with many other outdoor sports, desperately needs more leaders from Black communities. We are striving to hire these individuals and promote a welcoming atmosphere where they can belong and thrive.”

Grai added they also offer the following trainings to those working with youth to ensure the environment is inclusive:

  • JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) trainings. 
  • Specialized offerings for adaptive programming. 
  • Project management. 
  • Preventing child sexual abuse.

But perhaps more important than the training are the characteristics of adults involved with youth sports.

“She/he/they need to have a heart for service,” said Grai. “Youth sports leaders need to be passionate about providing the best possible experience for each youth. This heart for service will drive most leaders to learn and grow, improving each season. They need to be open to learning and feedback. When it comes to JEDI work, we are always learning and growing.”

Additionally, Monique Gallardo, the sports and recreation coordinator at the JCC of Youngstown, said her rec center employs several sports to ensure there is something for every child.

Among their most popular offerings are sand volleyball and basketball. Gallardo said they offer extra clinics and tournaments as well for these sports.

Gallardo said she is relatively new and has been running the department for a few months. However, she knows the necessary ingredients to create a successful environment for children.

“I would only recommend being genuine in everything you do, and listen to what they are saying if they are having a hard time understanding,” said Gallardo. “Encouragement is so important. It’s not about the coaches or teachers. At the end of the day, it’s about the kids’ experience.” 

John Reecer

John Reecer is an assistant editor at Peake Media.

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