Fields of Dreams

Page 7 of 11

Here's the perspective from Harvard University:

Too many Arizona kids are fat.

Obesity is one of the leading causes of health problems in the United States.

Researchers blame much of the increase in child obesity on video games, cable television, computers and the increasing inability of most children to stray and play far from home.

While suburban Phoenix may be drenched in sun, it also is inhospitable to foot or bike travel. It is a city built on the car. Here, kids need a ride most anywhere they might think of going.

One way to make fat kids thin is to make sports part of their lives. To do that, you need to build sports facilities and, more important, establish organizations that promote and organize those activities at the facilities you build.

Two top researchers in the field of youth obesity and youth sports are Greg Johnson and Van Le of the Sports Philanthropy Project in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an offshoot project of Harvard.

One of their most exciting and innovative programs, they say, comes from their partnership with the Arizona Tourism and Sports Authority. Their job: to figure out the most productive way to spend the Authority's $1 million to $2 million a year of taxpayer money that's earmarked for youth sports.

"You aren't going to change the world on one or two million dollars a year," Le says. "But with some smart planning, you can make that money go a lot farther toward the goal of helping youth sports in the Valley."

Le approaches the task from the community health perspective. Arizona spends $752 million a year on obesity-related illnesses, he says. His goal, then, is to attack childhood obesity with expanded recreational facilities and activities. And to make the TSA's limited money go much farther, he is enlisting the help of communities and health-related businesses and philanthropy groups to create partnerships that aim toward giving Valley kids more alternatives to video games.

"We've designed physical activity out of our communities," Le says. "Our goal is to design them back in. To do that, we've got to partner with everyone with a stake in the issue, everyone from hospital leaders to health-care providers to city parks-and-rec people. Then we've got to build more than just a park. We've got to build the organization around that park to make it a vibrant part of the community."

The TSA will soon complete development of a massive database of all existing recreational facilities in the Valley. Le and others hope to use that information to better target areas of the community that need the most help. That database will also help area coaches who need to find a field.

In February, the TSA gave out $1.32 million to 13 projects, many of which are renovations of existing public school rec facilities. In most cases, the TSA was providing a fraction of the total cost of the project, with cities, businesses and philanthropies adding matching funds and services.

In addition to the TSA efforts, the Diamondbacks' "Diamonds Back" program has built or refurbished 13 more baseball fields around Arizona since 2000. Nine of the fields are in the Valley.

But even with the TSA, Diamondbacks and individual cities working to upgrade and increase the number of ball fields in the Valley, area coaches say that most parts of the Valley are still far from having enough fields for all the emerging leagues and club teams.

"The only thing holding a lot of us back is the field issue," says Tom Kingery, one of the coaches of the Ahwatukee Cardinals, a 10-and-under club team that will be traveling to Japan this summer as part of Phoenix's Sister City program. "Sometimes it's just a nightmare trying to get a place to practice or play."

Kingery lamented the lack of playing areas one recent morning as he stood near first base of Randy Johnson Field in downtown Phoenix watching Mayor Phil Gordon announce that the Cardinals would be heading to Japan to represent Phoenix.

The Cardinals coaches had originally contacted Phoenix city government about the need for more baseball fields in the Ahwatukee area. They didn't get the fields. But they did get a trip to Japan (which the team is paying for with fund raisers).

"I'm sure they will represent us well," Gordon announced.

Kingery leaned toward the reporter standing next to him and whispered.

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Robert Nelson