This week a high school student asked me to share my thoughts about how NovatoSpirit helps vulnerable children. She wanted to know how NovatoSpirit, a nonprofit offering athletic scholarships to low-income kids, assists youth with their health and literacy. What helps, she asked, to lift kids from a difficult situation to a better place?
All children, rich or poor, need help. If you want to help a child thrive, you need to help his or her body, speech/communication, and mind/spirit. These three components make all of us complete as humans.
The body is the most important foundation. If children are sick, they cannot mingle with others, and they cannot go to school to learn. A healthy body is the foundation for education, and improved speech and communication. These, in turn, are the foundations for stretching the mind and spirit. So if you can only help children with one aspect of their lives, help their bodies get healthy and strong. Help them to live in a safe home, with adequate clothing, and nourishing food. Other things, like literacy and education, will fall into place for them more easily.
NovatoSpirit aims to help kids’ bodies, speech/communication, and mind/spirit. We help their bodies and minds by putting them in an environment of physical movement and intellectual mentorship, working with professional teachers of karate, tae kwon do, dance and soccer. Many kids that come to us have health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, asthma, and psychosomatic illness. Once they start exercising regularly and communicating with their NovatoSpirit teachers, their physical and mental health improves. When this happens, their minds are more open to learning and stretching.
All children, rich or poor, need help — not just from their parents, but from a variety of other adults, who have committed themselves to serving children. Among these adults are pediatricians, dentists, physical therapists, sports/athletic teachers, school teachers, special-education teachers, speech therapists, social workers, lawyers, court-appointed special advocates (CASAs) for children, spiritual leaders, mental health counselors, and nonprofit professionals and volunteers. All of these folks help, in different ways, a child’s body, speech/communication, and mind/spirit.
Poverty and misfortune are the forces that deliver vulnerable children to NovatoSpirit. Most kids are referred to us by pediatricians working at Marin Community Clinics (Novato site), heart specialists from the Pediatric Cardiology Medical Group at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, physical therapists from Kaiser Permanente, social workers from the Novato Human Needs Center, school teachers and special-education teachers from schools within the Novato Unified School District, mental-health counselors from public schools and the Novato Youth Center, and CASAs who work with the Marin County legal system to ensure that abused and neglected kids have access to enrichment programs, like NovatoSpirit.
Vulnerable children, especially those living in poverty, typically have fewer committed adults in their lives. They might have only one parent or no parents. They might not have access to doctors and health care, because their families cannot afford it; consequently, they are sick more often and have less access to school teachers and the healthy food served at schools for free.
They might not have access to healthy food at home, because healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy food. They might have less access to friends, education, sports and other opportunities, because their parents/legal guardians do not have a computer or a car.
All of this does not mean that vulnerable children do not receive an abundance of love or care. It just means that they have less of some of the conditions they might need in order to succeed. So, vulnerable children need the most help of all.
NovatoSpirit has what may be an unattainable aspiration for our kids, all of whom live within 200 percent of the federal poverty Level. We don’t just want them to have “equal access” or “equity.” We want them to achieve more than equity. We hope to put them in conditions of longterm physical-fitness activities, which can help them to reach their full potential as human beings. We want them to experience more than an equal human experience — we want them to have an optimal, superlative human experience.
Each NovatoSpirit student has the opportunity to enjoy his or her athletic scholarship for five years. This time-span enables them to get into shape and maintain their fitness, to bond with their athletic teachers/mentors, and to make a variety of new friends, who will lead them to other life experiences and opportunities. In order to progress, NovatoSpirit students have to work hard and persevere.
They also have to communicate with me regularly in English, orally and in writing. This requirement helps them get used to the idea that they need to “report” their experiences; such reporting is a requirement for all scholarship programs, not just NovatoSpirit. In order to prepare these kids to succeed with other opportunities, such as scholarships to college, they will need to develop a practice of writing and speaking. Most opportunities come to us here in America in the language of English.
Having said that, I think that adults committed to helping vulnerable children need to reach out to their families in their native language. If you want a child to succeed, you need to work closely with the child’s parent(s) or legal guardian and develop a bond of trust. In Novato, most of our low-income population of adults speaks Spanish primarily and some English. Therefore, NovatoSpirit applications are offered in English and Spanish. I also use volunteer Spanish interpreters and translators to help me communicate with some parents. As with their children, I require all written communication to me from the NovatoSpirit parents to be in English. This compels the parents to reach out to friends and English-language tutors, who can help them with English. The more a parent becomes literate, the more they can help their child — not just with NovatoSpirit opportunities, but also with other nonprofit opportunities available to them by virtue of their poverty.
It has been interesting for me to hear from the NovatoSpirit youth how their minds and spirits have been affected by their athletics. The most common report I hear is: “I am happier now.” This happiness can lead to the development of an optimistic, hopeful outlook about the present and the future. This hope is crucial. These kids really need to have faith in themselves and in their future. Faith in the goodness of life is most often developed in them through their parents, family, spiritual community, and through NovatoSpirit’s athletic teachers/mentors.
The exceptional instructors of NovatoSpirit youth are:
- Mr. Robert Ito of Ito’s White Tiger Karate School,
- Master Myong O of Kyung Ki Tae Kwon Do
- Tara-Caprice Broadwater of Love2Dance
- Diane Ascher, who coaches the soccer program at the Novato Youth Center
These outstanding athletic professionals invite kids to stretch themselves physically and mentally each and every day. Their NovatoSpirit students are asked to break free from any physical or mental constraints that are imposed upon them or that they impose upon themselves. They are rewarded for their attendance, effort, and improvement. They are asked to be kind and helpful. They are praised for helping other kids in class. When they fall back, they are urged to keep going. When they are discouraged, they are taught how to encourage themselves. When they are tired, they are taught that moving forward while tired is better than not moving at all. They are taught how to stick up for themselves and others, and that good teamwork is the key to good individual performance.
You might call all of this simply good coaching. But I think of it as developing an ethical and spiritual practice in youth. Everyone needs a strategy for coping with conflict, hardship, disappointment, and loss. When their NovatoSpirit scholarships come to an end, these youth can lean upon the remembered teachings of their athletic instructors.
For more information about NovatoSpirit, please visit www.NovatoSpirit.org.