Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Struggling to give kids a sporting chance

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 15, 2009


Some children are born with pocket aces. Others face longer odds.

Few students at elementary schools in Vancouver's poorer neighbourhoods grow up with computers in their bedroom, or get to experience horizon-expanding holidays in resorts.

They do not enjoy the services of private math tutors, or private sports instruction.

A pair of former Olympic runners – Doug Clement (1952, 1956) and Valerie Jerome (1960) – felt east-side students could benefit from an introduction to their sport. In running, those young lives might find a sense of direction, even if it was mostly loops around an oval cinder track.

The Olympians knew how beneficial sport was to their lives. He grew up around Main and East 25th Avenue, the son of an electrical engineer. She grew up in North Vancouver, the daughter of a railway porter. On the track, they found a purpose as well as a community.

Two years ago, they helped launch a program in which coaches visited inner-city schools twice a week for four months. The coaching was conducted by Tatjana and Besnik Mece, both of whom had been national-team members in their native Albania, he as a steeplechaser, she as a pentathlete and high jumper. Both hold university degrees in human kinetics.

Their philosophy: Some children don't know they have a talent until given an opportunity.

The training sessions culminated in a track meet held during the annual Harry Jerome International Track Classic.

The little kids ran in the very lanes in which the world's greatest runners competed.

“We thought bringing young children right up beside the professional Olympic athletes might be stimulating for them,” Mr. Clement said.

A year ago, Gary Reed visited Hastings Elementary School, where he offered running tips to about 100 eager students. Mr. Reed is familiar with growing up poor, as he spent a peripatetic childhood as his single mother moved often in search of work.

The Hastings students adopted the 800-metre runner as other classes might take on a pet hamster. They created a long, scroll-like banner to encourage him at the Beijing Olympics.

Mr. Clement and Ms. Jerome were delighted.

The program was a success. Underprivileged children got world-class instruction, as well as an inexpensive introduction to the world of sports.

In the first year, they had six schools.

In the second year, they had eight schools.

In this the third year, they were hoping to expand. It is an election year.

Gangs and drugs are in the news. The Winter Olympics are around the corner. Who wouldn't want to back an initiative promoting fitness and opportunity for inner-city children?

Organizers checked in with sponsors last week to confirm commitments.

Ms. Jerome was devastated by the response.

A law firm backed out, saying it could no longer contribute while laying off lawyers.

Other sponsors also backed out with reluctance and apologies.

With a modest budget of $52,000, the program so far has but a lone corporate backer for the coming year.

In a time of belt-tightening, those with little are about to get even less.

“We pay in the long run when we don't find something else for these children,” Ms. Jerome said. “We neglect them at our peril.”

Her brother, the great Olympic runner Harry Jerome, a world-record holder in the 100-metre dash, overcame humble beginnings and racial prejudice to become a world-class sprinter. After retiring from the track, he was hired by the federal government to promote sports and fitness among the young. In B.C., he launched a program in which school children got to experience different sports.

“His biggest passion in life was sports for kids,” his sister said of a brother who died suddenly at age 42 in 1982. “He desperately wanted those children to have the same opportunity he did.”

You never know from what soil an Olympian will spring.

Back in 1979, as desperate migrants from Vietnam sought refuge, a United Church group in the village of Hazelton in the B.C. Interior agreed to help settle a mother, a father, two children and an uncle. A girl was born to the family within the year. In high school, she became a wrestler thanks to a coach who was himself an immigrant from the United States.

The slight, muscular athlete developed into a fierce competitor and, at the Beijing Olympics, Carol Huynh won a gold medal while wearing the singlet of her birthplace and her parents' adopted home. The daughter of Vietnamese boat people, who as a group were not universally welcomed to this land, made the most of her opportunity.

In Vancouver's concrete and gravel schoolyards, future Harry and Valerie Jeromes might go ignored for want of a coach. Unless more sponsors are found, those school kids will be deprived of an opportunity in a world in which there are already too few.

2009 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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