New research shows downward trend in youth sports participation, financial barriers to low-income kids. Mayor Ted Wheeler 'We have a responsibility'

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Major League Baseball Vice President of Youth Programs David James organized children into groups for  the free baseball clinic on Saturday.Children in their baseball caps and kid-sized gloves excitedly made their way into the Walker Stadium in the Lents neighborhood on Saturday, Oct. 7 to learn a bit from the best.

Dubbed the "Play Ball" event, the free clinic was aimed at boosting participation of youth in sports. Kids ranging from toddlers to teenagers gathered on the baseball field, splitting off into various workshops.

In recent years, participation in youth sport has been seeing a downward trajectory. In fact, according to research presented by the Aspen Institute in early September, youth sports is in something of a crisis. Participation by kids age 6 through 12 is down nearly 8 percent in the last 10 years.

What's more, money continues to be a major barrier for some, as data shows it paves the way for more privileged youth while those from low-income families are left behind. According to their research, in 2016, nearly 30 percent of kids from homes in the lowest income bracket, under $25,000 annual salary, were physically active, while only 11.5 percent of children from wealthy households, $100,00 or above, were considered physically inactive.

The institute has started an initiative called Project Play 2020, to boost access and increase numbers of kids playing sports. The initiative states that through sports activity, youth will be less likely to develop obesity-related health issues — such as stroke, cancer, heart disease and diabeties — which will save on medical costs, among many other health benefits of being active.

While the event at the newly-renovated Walker Stadium was a cheery one, Mayor Ted Wheeler took a moment to address a serious concern.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Mayor Ted Wheeler proclaimed Oct. 7, 2017, Play Ball Day."We have a responsibility … to ensure that the youth in our community have lots of opportunities, regardless of who they are, where they're from, what their income is — it doesn't matter. All kids should have access to great sporting events like this here today," Wheeler said, before he read an official proclamation by City Council naming Oct. 7 "Play Ball Day."

The effort is to boost programming in part through the United States Conference of Mayors, in partnership with Major League Baseball and Friends of Baseball. Friends of Baseball is a Portland-based organization. The nonprofit, which specializes in after school and summer enrichment programs, has served 300 youths at six different sites, while there is a wait list a dozen schools long, according to organizers.

Other MLB officials were at the Pickles' stadium on Saturday including Brian Hunter, a retired player for various teams including Philadelphia Phillies, Astros and Seattle Mariners; Jeff Lahti, manager of the Portland Pickles and 1982 World Series champion with the St. Louis Cardinals; and Tony Reagins, the senior vice president of youth programs at MLB.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Children gathered at Walker Stadium in Southeast Portland's Lents Park to participate in a free baseball clinic. A "Swing for the Fences" gala event on Nov. 9 at Portland Art Museum will benefit Friends of Baseball's after school and day camp "Full Count" program. Former Portlander Dale Murphy, a retired major leaguer of Atlanta Braves fame, is the gala's star guest.

"It's fun to get kids out, but we also need to raise awareness so people who can help will help," said Friends of Baseball Executive Director Nova Newcomer.

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Lyndsey Hewitt
Reporter, Portland Tribune
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