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Nonprofit pushes sports as a safe space for youth
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

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A New York-based national not-for-profit organization with a Chicago chapter is pushing forward with an initiative to promote sports as the solution to the challenges facing America's youth, including LGBTQ.

Up2Us partnered late last year with the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation, which awarded Up2Us a grant to develop Making Sports A Safe Place, a co-branded bullying-prevention program, which has been piloted this year. The grant will help Up2Us develop the Safe Space Toolkit, a set of strategies and activities to help coaches address bullying issues and also provide LGBT-sensitivity training.

The charity's Chicago chapter teamed with the Chicago Park District and Ald. Pat Dowell, among others, in early May for Community Wellness Day at Wentworth Gardens. The event encouraged health, wellness and fitness through a variety of sports.

"The Up2Us Field Day is a great example of how neighbors and community based organizations can work together to create safe and healthy spaces for everyone to enjoy. I [was] pleased to be a part of this event because it celebrates the wonderful families that make up this community," Dowell said in a statement,

Tena Kunik, regional director for Up2Us ( Chicago ), said the event "was awesome," attracting about 300.

"Sports and sports-based youth development are part of the solution, trying to address the needs of high-risk youth and the youth that have been exposed to trauma," Kunik said.

The May event had attendees as old as 70 and about 35 coaches.

Chicago is one of four cities nationally ( New Orleans, Miami and Los Angeles ) with a regional director, such as Kunik, to help elevate the awareness of the organization.

Up2Us was formed four years ago and has been prevalent in Chicago for the past three years. Up2Us, according to its website, "harnesses the power of sports to reduce youth violence, promote health, and inspire academic success for kids in every community. Our research, training, and on-the-ground initiatives empower sports programs across the country to become a united force for meaningful change."

The charity teams with about 750 members across the country, including about 60 here in Chicago, across a variety of sports, such as, Chicago Run, which was founded in 2007 to aid in the fight against childhood obesity.

"Thanks to utilizing Up2Us services, Chicago Run was able to serve over 16,000 students this academic year," Amy Witt, director of development & strategy for Chicago Run, said in a statement.

Other local members aligned with Up2Us include After School Matters, Soccer Without Borders Chicago, Chicago Youth Boxing Club, Team M3, and the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, among others.

Kunik said one of the strengths of Up2Us is its coaching program, filled with trained coaches/mentors who often are ethnically-reflective of the community they are serving. Plus, the coaches are "super trained in youth development, and how to use sports within the context of youth development so you get greater outcomes," she said. "For instance, a soccer player may score two goals in a game, as opposed to one, and that's great—but if you can walk away with two new friends, that's better.

"While sports often tend to be gender-specific, and often very male-dominated, we want to play a role in changing that context—and looking at sports as a vehicle to create greater physical activity, but also to create a safe and open space for everyone involved. One of the ways we are trying to do that is by addressing bullying, and by creating a level playing field, so that everyone can be engaged and show that everyone has just as many skills as anyone else. Thus, it takes away that atmosphere of being picked on," for being less skilled or because of sexual-orientation or gender identity.

Kunik added, "We really work with our coaches to create an atmosphere where it's not the great players and then everyone else. It's really about creating that safe space."

Up2Us has a successful Coach Across America program, launched in 2010, that places and trains role models to bring sports-based youth development to underserved communities, inspiring children to be leaders.

"Up2Us can play such a key role in creating a safe space for youth at a young age, including LGBTQ youth, so they can feel comfortable being who they are—and they are surrounded by other people who are comfortable with who they are," Kunik said. "Often, all it takes is that one caring adult who can be there for a youth, one who may be dealing with [negative aspects] of coming out of the closet. That Up2Us coach can be there, to help him or her through that tough time."

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