Grizzlies Foundation uses sports partnership to mentor youth

The Grizzlies Foundation uses its TEAM UP Youth Sports Partnership to reach children in select Memphis communities where a GrizzFit Kids Bootcamp is combined with elective sports training to teach lifelong healthy lifestyles.
Much of the attention the Memphis Grizzlies receive is centered on the play on the court at FedExForum.
But one area where the NBA team’s impact is felt possibly as strongly is in the communities where the Grizzlies Foundation does work. The nonprofit organization uses sport to transform the lives of children living at risk. And in Memphis, there is a wide swath of communities that fall under that umbrella.
The Grizzles Foundation created the TEAM UP Youth Sports Partnership as a coalition of community groups that use sports as a catalyst for youth development. It includes the GrizzFit Empowerment Zone, GrizzFit Kids Bootcamp and Up2Us Sports.
Joel Katz, Manager of TEAM UP Youth Sports Partnership, joined the Grizzlies organization in 2010 as an Americorps VISTA member. The initial project was to bring the team mentoring programs to life, and he created the TEAM Mentor Program in 2011.
One of the obvious gaps in those days was how should a sports team serve the community with its mentoring in a sports-specific way.
The theory of change, Katz said, is that if coaches are provided training, a support structure, curriculum and intentionality around a space they, much like volunteer mentors, have a unique opportunity with children to develop them intentionally through sports.
“That was the premise in how we attacked,” he said. “The TEAM UP Youth Sports partnership is our way of supporting after-school sports with a focus on youth mentoring.”
Members of the partnership are Streets Ministries, Memphis Athletic Ministries, Lester Community Center, Grizzlies Prep, Knowledge Quest and Emmanuel Center. Participating students are 8 to 14.
Walter Casey has been director of the Lester Community Center for more than 35 years. The GrizFit program started at Lester Community Center last year for one day a week. It immediately was successful with students and staff.
“They’re involving some of the kids who are overweight,” he said. “I had one kid, his productive level was so shallow and his parents decided to get him a physical and they found out he was obese and he needed to quickly lose weight. Had this program not been there this kid would’ve grown up being overweight and possibly never understanding he needed a lifestyle change. You can see the weight he has lost. His energy level is higher. Now he’s one of the first ones trying to get up there in the front.”
The GrizzFit Empowerment Zone engages third through eighth graders in underserved communities in giving them access to after-school electives that promote fitness, exercise and sport, featuring traditional and non-traditional activities that include a focus on building strong adult mentor relationships.
The eight-week electives introduce new skills each week that help students meet individual fitness goals. The non-traditional sports include rowing, tennis and yoga.
The GrizzFit Kids Bootcamp introduces participants to a basic foundation of fitness with power, speed, strength, agility and flexibility sessions. The unique curriculum is a 90-minute session that starts with a short period of informal time with activities that utilize items such as beach balls and jump ropes.
That informal time is followed by a group warmup and coach-led instruction that includes a physical fitness or skill focus that is reinforced through a life skill such as passion. The children then receive a challenge at the end of each session that is homework they have to do before the next week’s session. It includes a physical workout and nutrition challenge.
The weekly 90-minute boot camps are broken into three eight-week sessions: fall, winter/spring and summer. The sessions begin with a “GrizzFit combine,” a fancier name for baseline testing.
“Our goal is to retain kids and coaches every season,” Katz said. “In an ideal world kids progress third grade to fourth grade to fifth grade. Ultimately you feel like they start over but that’s why we do this to create consistency with what we offer. We talk about it as one year-long program.”
GrizzFit Kids Bootcamp is held in three locations four days a week. About half of the children at each location participate in boot camp one day while the other half play a sport. The groups switch on the second day of the week.
GrizzFit focuses on non-traditional sports and access, meaning instead of typical sports such as basketball participants are engaged in tennis and rowing.
“Kids are born into this specialized state so our goal is to introduce kids on a basic level to these other sports,” Katz said. “We want to increase access to different sports. I played every sport growing up, and when we talk about goals we want kids to say some of the same things because of the benefit that comes from involvement in sports.”
The boot camps started at Lester Community Center and Grizzles Prep because of established relationships. At the three boot camp locations (Emmanuel is the third) there are a total of between 120 and 150 children involved.
The programs are taken to the kids, not the other way around.

“There is no expectation that kids travel to us,” Katz said. “You locate this in centers where kids are already coming. It’s created of and for the community. We fill in the gaps a bit, but they have the culture and space. We can’t shake it all up. You can’t disrespect a culture. We complement and support.”
The Refugee Empowerment Program addresses needs of the city’s refugee population. Cam Echols is the organization’s director, and she said in her 15 years of working with the refugee community that she’s seen many instances of students not interested in going to the community center to engage in activities.
But GrizzFit has opened new doors to students of all interests in the community.
“You’re not only keeping them out of trouble but also helping them with their health,” Echols said. “It gets kids that might be playing video games up and active and it introduces them to things they’ve never done before.”
That’s important, particularly in a community like Binghampton where many of the kids only know basketball or soccer, Echols said.
“What Joel and Memphis GrizzFit has done with tennis, rowing and yoga it’s opening the gates of possibilities for our youth and it’s almost like how we’re doing with urban education,” she said. “It shouldn’t matter what ZIP code you live in. You should be able to participate in extracurricular activities, regardless.”
It’s also important to note the training that coaches receive; they don’t just show up and put children on rowing machines for 20 minutes without a base knowledge. Training goes above sport-specific knowledge, though, although sports-based training is important.
Every coach goes through 13 hours of training, including workshops on developmental relationships and ones on youth sports development.
Casey said the nutrition element shouldn’t go unnoticed. What GrizzFit adds to his mission is invaluable, he said.
They teach the children to look for certain colors in their food and to drink more water.
“Instead of kids running to the vending machine for a sugary drink they now bring water bottles,” Casey said. “We’re finding out it has more carry-over effect than we thought. We thought it would help with the 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds but they have older brothers and sisters who are getting the information. We have parents telling us they’ve never been able to get their son or daughter to eat celery or carrots or cauliflower. Now they’re eating fruits and vegetables. Now we have children teaching parents. … It helps them to understand mentally and physically that when you change your body it changes your future.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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