On a chilly Saturday afternoon, Halima Marshall, 22, gathers with scores of women and girls, all bundled in sweaters, scarves and mittens, and all ready to brave the treacherous domain of the Oakland Ice Center for a day of skating. On the ice, some are graceful; others stumble as they try to catch their balance. Marshall wobbles and her skates become pigeon-toed as she grabs for the rail to balance herself and falls over. Latalia Goins, 13, is right behind her.
“Come on. Get up. Try again,” Goins says, laughing.
Marshall and Goins are members of SportsBridge, a nonprofit organization that provides athletic programs and events to empower girls through sports. The only program of its kind in the country, SportsBridge girls middle-school girls with volunteer women athletes from area colleges and universities, and the corporate world.
According to a 1990 U.S. Department of Health Youth Risk Behavior Study, while 31 percent of high-school freshman girls participate in sports, only 17 percent are still involved by their senior year. Girls drop out for a number of reasons: Some fear being called tomboys or dikes, many don’t get the same encouragement and support as boys do and others can’t envision themselves as athletes because so few female role models exist.
SportsBridge aims to overcome those obstacles. Mentors meet weekly with their student athletes to shoot hoops, play volleyball and provide academic support with tutoring or trips to the library. “It keeps me out of trouble and away from girls who fight a lot because it keeps me busy,” Goins says.
Ann Kletz, founder and executive director of SportsBridge, feels strongly that sports can give girls the confidence they need to carry them through other areas of life. Playing soccer in high school, she had the support of her parents and coaches but still felt she lacked a mentor.
She launched SportsBridge in 1995 with the help of local foundations and corporations. In the group’s pilot year, 21 mentors were paired with seventh and eighth-graders for 10 months. After a season, the program expanded to included 40 pairs. Since then SportsBridge’s budget has quadrupled to $400,000. And the program still can’t meet growing demand.
Kletz has received hundreds of calls from around the country inquiring about the availability of the program. Organizers are working on a model to be replicated in other cities.
SportsBridge distinguishes itself by its preventative approach. Other programs intervene with at-risk girls late in the game, after they are addicted to drugs, HIV positive or pregnant. SportsBridge reaches out to girls before they run into trouble, providing them tools to cope with the pressures of their lives.
“First and foremost, we create situations where the girls are challenging themselves in new ways,” Kletz says. “They are experiencing success, and they can meet female role models and friends from other schools.
“We’ve struck a chord with a generation of Title IX women,” she says. “Now they are realizing how important sports were in their lives and want to make sure that these girls have the same opportunities.”
Kletz stresses that sports are a vehicle for lifelong lessons. Through athletics, these girls learn to complete, cooperate with one another, deal with success and failure, and maintain long-lasting friendships. They develop a heightened self-image, greater self-confidence and an increased awareness about healthy habits. “When they picture an athlete,” Marshall says of the girls in the program, “now they can actually picture themselves.”