Courtesy // Priscilla Du Preez

The Power of Organized Sports

By Claire Sibonney

Organized physical activities are so much more than just fun and games. They help children get exercise, make friends, learn teamwork and improve self-esteem and mental health. Yet, according to the latest ParticipAction Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, participation in organized sports programs is at its lowest level in nearly a decade.

Many kids in Canada miss out on sports because of financial hardship, gender and racial barriers and lack of access to sports leagues or school programs. That’s where not-for-profit organizations pick up the ball. These inspiring charities work hard to ensure that kids aren’t left sitting on the sidelines.

Fast and Female

Research shows that 94 percent of women who hold top management positions are former athletes. Sports teach collaboration and help girls build the confidence to become leaders. Yet, by the age of 16, one in three girls who play sports drop out, compared with one out of 10 boys the same age.

Fast and Female is a Canadian charity that partners with local organizations to keep girls in the game. It runs workshops across Canada for a wide range of sports, from cheer and running to wheelchair basketball. In Dartmouth, for example, Fast and Female paired up with the Mic Mac Amateur Aquatic Club for a Champ Chats event, which connected girls with women athletes and role models for a panel discussion, yoga session and physical activity circuit. And, at Hardwood Ski and Bike in Oro-Medonte, Ont., girls attended a Power Hour workshop, activity and inspirational chat with local role models. The event was followed by an optional trail ride with the group.

“Role models are at the heart of what we do,” says Gabriela Estrada, executive director of Fast and Female. The group’s mentors include gold-medal professional athletes, as well as doctors, firefighters, nurses and teachers, she notes, all geared to empower girls through sport and physical activity.

Spirit North

In the Nordic skiing world, Beckie Scott of Vermilion, Alta., made history as the first North American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in cross-country. In recent years, the three-time Olympian, anti-doping advocate and Officer of the Order of Canada has shifted her attention to helping others succeed. In 2009, Scott established Spirit North, a national charitable organization that uses sports and physical activities to improve the health and well-being of Indigenous youth. She was inspired to create the non-profit after a stint as an ambassador for a small ski program in northern Alberta where all the participants were First Nation and Métis.

Scott saw how even such a short visit could impact children by inspiring them through sports. But it wasn’t enough. “Hearing, at the end of the day, ‘When are you coming back?’ was a heartbreaker because you recognize that this is one of the only opportunities they get, and it’s so unfair,” says Scott. “We have this entire population of people living on the margins of society who just don’t have the same access [to sports].”

Reaching 13,000 Indigenous youth in 105 communities across Canada, Spirit North’s activities range from canoeing in Alberta to snowshoeing in Manitoba to hiking in Saskatchewan. Spirit North also teams up with elders, family members and local educators in various communities to host festival days for kids. Currently, about half of the program’s coaches are Indigenous and the goal is to double that with the help of the organization’s mentorship and training programs.

KidSport Canada

KidSport Canada provides lower-income families with financial assistance for sport registration fees and equipment costs. Currently, it raises about $9 million annually to help 40,000 children per year by funding opportunities for more than 80 different sports.

“Sport is something that all kids should have access to because it teaches lessons that will make them better people,” says KidSport Canada’s CEO, Greg Ingalls. “Some of those athletes end up becoming Olympians or professional athletes. That’s awesome. But we’re more concerned about creating solid citizens through sport.”

Since 1993, KidSport has helped nearly one million Canadian children experience the joy of organized sports. One of those kids was Yembeh Moiba, who, at age six, emigrated from Sierra Leone to Alberta with his mom and five siblings. With the help of KidSport, he earned a football scholarship to the University of Alberta, where he graduated as a chartered accountant. Now, Moiba volunteers as the treasurer for KidSport Alberta. “[Using] sport as a social development tool, providing opportunities for kids,” says Ingalls.” Those are the things we’re most proud of.”