The winners of the 2008 Excellence in Youth Sports Awards focus on providing safe and positive experiences for all.
For Hickam (Hawaii) Air Force Base director of youth sports and fitness Bonnie Bentley, the fact that her department has won a national award for outstanding delivery of youth sports programs is not just a reflection of the work of staff and volunteers. It's also a reflection of the kids they serve.
"I feel blessed to work with such talented keiki," says Bentley, using a Hawaiian term meaning "children." "The expressions on their faces when they were notified that they had won is something that I cherish."
Hickam AFB joins USAG Fort Belvoir (Va.), the City of Clearwater (Fla.) Parks and Recreation Department, the City of Evans (Colo.) Parks and Recreation Department, and the Tinker (Okla.) Air Force Base Youth Center as winners of the 2008 Excellence in Youth Sports Award. Created by the National Alliance for Youth Sports and Athletic Business in 2000, the annual award honors recreational youth sports programs that are doing superior jobs of conducting diverse activities with a focus on providing safe and positive experiences for all participants - including children, parents and coaches.
While representing a range of program sizes and geographic locations, this year's winners share a dedication to include kids of all ability levels in recreation activities and a desire to provide the kind of quality programming to very young children that will keep them engaged and inspired as they mature. "As they get older, depending on how their parents guide them, kids can have a tendency to get away from youth sports," says Fort Belvoir youth sports director Jerry Arrington. "So we try to really focus on the younger kids, to teach them the motor skills so they can be developed and ready for more advanced programs."
Three of this year's winners have thrived despite the challenges inherent to providing youth sports at military installations. "The biggest challenge in military installations is the turnover - every two years," says Arrington. "Kids and parents come in and then they leave. The thing I hear a lot is, 'We did it different at our last post than the way we do it at Fort Belvoir.' "
Almost all of this year's winners say dealing with parents is indeed the most difficult challenge facing providers of youth sports. "We charge a minimal fee for our programs, and many parents just think, 'We paid for it, now we don't have to do anything,' " says Dan Maples, recreation supervisor for the Evans Parks and Recreation Department. "It can sometimes feel like pulling teeth to get those parents out there and involved, so we're trying to change that way of thinking."
While parent involvement - whether coaching, refereeing or volunteering in other ways - is a constant challenge, this year's winners have been praised for their positive involvement within their community and with other recreation providers, which are two of the many criteria on which applications for the Excellence Award were evaluated. Winners survived a two-round review process by giving detailed and functionally relevant answers to tough questions such as, "How is sportsmanship promoted in your program?" and "What does your program do to help ensure the safety of participants?"
Arrington takes great pride in the award - which will be presented to winners at the International Youth Sports Congress and the Athletic Business Conference & Expo, held in conjunction in San Antonio, Texas, on Dec. 3-6 - although he, for one, won't necessarily miss one aspect of the application process.
"Any time I can leave my office, get away from paperwork and get out and help the kids learn a skill or watch them be successful at something, it's a joy for me," Arrington says. "I came to youth sports from a background in adult sports, and even though I work crazy hours - 12, 13 hours a day - at the end of that day, it's completely rewarding."