When Beth Devine saw an inequity in sports programs available in Philadelphia vs. its suburbs, she thought, "There's no reason that a kid, no matter their zip code, shouldn't be able to play."

But that's a reality for many Philadelphia kids. More than a third live in poverty, without money or access to equipment or traditional youth sports programs. One in five youths don't get daily physical activity, putting them increasingly at risk of being undereducated and unhealthy.

On Wednesday, Devine, executive director of Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative, joined Mayor Kenney and other officials in announcing GameOn Philly, an initiative to create accessible, high-quality youth sports programs for 240,000 school-age kids citywide. The programs, the group said, would blend sports and life-skill development.

Beth Devine, executive director of PYSC, speaks at a press conference at City Hall for the release of a report by Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative.
Beth Devine, executive director of PYSC, speaks at a press conference at City Hall for the release of a report by Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative.

Programs like these "give kids the opportunity to meet their full potential," Kenney said at a City Hall news conference.

"It's about equity," he said. "We need to have equal opportunities for our kids on every level."

Over the next five years, campaign organizers said, they will try to raise $1 million to make affordable and accessible programs, and to train the professionals and volunteers who run them.

Devine said the coalition already has about $500,000 of grant funding to spend on pilot programming for youth sports, with hope that more will come in.

The initiative came on the heels of a report released Wednesday that said sports-based youth programs could change the lives of Philadelphia youth.

The analysis, compiled by the city's Sports-based Youth Development task force, concluded that kids who participate in sports and physical activity have better grades, a better attitude toward school work, and better attendance, and are more likely to complete school. They are also less likely to take drugs, drink alcohol, engage in risky sex, smoke cigarettes, and commit or fall victim to violence.

"Healthier children are more likely to complete school, which in turn increases opportunities in adulthood and positively impacts social mobility," it said.

The report came after nine months of work by the task force, led by Otis Hackney, the city's chief education officer; Michael DiBerardinis, its managing director; and David Montgomery, chairman of the Phillies.

"We need everyone that has had their life changed by a coach, who saw the difference that sports made in their child, or who even just cares about the future of this city, to engage in this effort," it said.

Team Up Philly, a member organization of the collaborative, is an example of what the initiative hopes to achieve on a mass scale — a program that marries sports with academic support, character and leadership development, and mentoring.

Without Team Up, 14-year-old Rhunnell "RaeRae" Palmer said, she would "probably be in the house all of the time."

Instead, the girl plays tennis, gets help with her homework, and visits new places. Palmer was a timid girl with a C grade in math, she said after the news conference, until she joined four years ago. Now, she has an A in math and is "expressing myself a lot more."

TYLISA C. JOHNSON/Staff

"We get help with our homework and still play fun games," Palmer said. "It helps build our personality. It's a really good program."