For 40 minutes, the eight- and nine-year-old boys are coached through a series of basketball drills. They learn to dribble, pivot, shoot and hold a defensive pose. Some have never played basketball before, but are excited to learn. In a classroom, 10-year-old girls are listening to a nutritionist talk about the amount of sugar in their favorite soft drinks. In the indoor swimming pool, 11-year-old boys are splashing and paddling around in the water. Outside, a group of 13- to 14-year-old girls is learning how to toss a rugby ball.

All of these activities are part of the Summer Youth Sports Program (SYSP), held annually in June on the campus of the University of New Mexico.

The 2014 camp, which recently just concluded, in the UNM Johnson Center and ended with a ceremony that awarded bikes and sports equipment to camp participants judged “most outstanding” by group leaders.

The four-week sports camp is open to kids aged eight to 14 in the Albuquerque-area, but the program targets disadvantaged kids who may not have access to safe summertime activities.

With funding made possible by UNM’s College of Education, the program is designed to be affordable for everyone. This year, participating families paid only $10 per student. The low fee helps low-income families who otherwise would find the fees of other summer camps well out of their reach.

Fun activities encourage physical fitness
For Program Director Stacy Washington, the SYSP is all about promoting positive, healthy choices among kids who might otherwise spend their summer days watching TV or playing video games. Instead, the participants spend weekday mornings learning basketball, football, soccer, rugby, swimming, volleyball and dance. The program also includes guest speakers and instruction in health and science topics.

Washington, a UNM Alumnus and former Lobo Football linebacker, is also the head coach for both football and track at Highland High School. He has recruited several area coaches and UNM student athletes to help with the summer camp.

Trained coaches and educators teach the sports skills, dance and classroom components of the summer camp. Washington notes that each instructor is a specialist in the sport or skill he or she is teaching. Every child gets to participate in every sport or activity during the course of each week. The SYSP encourages kids to be active, he says, but he also wants each participant to “have fun as a kid.”

UNM students serve as role model leaders
The youth who come to the sports camp are divided into groups according to their age and gender. Each group of 20-35 kids is led by an Instructional Aide, usually a UNM college athlete. These group leaders become role models for the children, who are eager to get to know the college students. The UNM athlete leaders are well aware of their positive influence on these kids. Instructional Aide and NCAA track star Chaz Lewis encourages the kids in his group “to do their best in everything.”

A group of girls learn to dance at the Summer Youth Sports Program.

Nathan Ortiz, who has been an Instructional Aide for four years, says that the camp provides much-needed structure for the kids, in addition to encouraging teamwork and social skills. He also sees the connection between sports and academic success. Not only are the young kids encouraged to stay in school in order to play sports, but they also look at the UNM athlete leaders and see what hard work can achieve.

Vital services level the field
The summer camp also includes free bus transportation, breakfast, and lunch. A hired bus service picks up and drops off kids, so that no matter their economic circumstances, everyone can participate.

The free meals are provided through the Bernalillo County Summer Lunch Program, which addresses the critical child hunger problem in New Mexico. The sports camp serves a diverse group of children from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, but many are from families who are struggling to put food on the table. Isaac Burgener, assistant program director for SYSP, sees kids for whom the free breakfast and lunch may be their only meals for the day. “I see some asking for seconds and thirds at lunch because they may not have anything [at home] for dinner,” he says.

The mind-body connection
Although kids may be attracted to the SYSP because of sports, the program addresses the development of the whole child, including mind and body. The premise is that an active, healthy body supports learning. That’s why the sports camp teaches basic sports skills but also incorporates hands-on classroom activities that teach health and science topics.

One of the more than 260 students who regularly attended the UNM Summer Youth Sports Program enjoys some time in the swimming pool.

The classroom activities allow kids to create and explore. To demonstrate principles about the freezing points of liquids, for example, the kids make ice cream. On another day, summer camp participants learn about the work of an athletic trainer. The idea is to let kids have fun while expanding their horizons.

The program also includes guest speakers from the community. This year, representatives from the Albuquerque Fire Department taught fire safety and allowed the kids try on their protective clothing. On another day, members of the Albuquerque Police Department were on hand to judge the winner of “Crazy Hair Day.”

More funding needed to continue program
The summer camp at UNM, initially funded by a federal grant, was started more than 40 years ago. Over the years, thousands of kids in the Albuquerque area have participated. In 2014, enrollment was more than 400, and daily attendance averaged about 260. Washington says that he would like to see more kids involved, but that will require more funding. In most years, however, the program is in danger of being cut or severely scaled-back due to insufficient funding. Plans for next year’s program will begin in a few months, but the scope of the camp will depend upon the level of support from donations and grants.

For information about how to support this program, contact UNM College of Education Sr. Development Director Mary Wolford at (505) 277-1088 or visit Summer Youth Sports Program Fund.