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Baltimore kids learn about exercise and nutrition at WNBA clinic in Penn North

Neighborhood boys and girls participated in push-up drills and other fitness activities during a Tuesday morning WNBA Fit Clinic at Penn-North Kids Safe Zone. (Michael Brice-Saddler/Baltimore Sun video)

About a hundred Baltimore kids learned the importance of exercise and nutrition through basketball drills Tuesday morning at a fitness clinic hosted by the WNBA at the Penn North Kids Safe Zone.

The clinic, co-sponsored by Kaiser Permanente, took place on the new basketball court across from the Kids Safe Zone. The center was created as a safe space for kids in the community to play in the wake of Freddie Gray's death, and offers a free camp for 100 area children each summer.

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Ericka Alston-Buck, founder of the Kids Safe Zone, said the basketball court was "almost unplayable" before the city Department of Recreations & Parks and Kaiser Permanente funded a $40,000 renovation, which was completed in July.

The court now features exercise equipment similar to those found around the Druid Hill Park reservoir, she said. The court has been packed every day since it was renovated.

"Kids were literally tripping over holes and falling on the court," Alston-Buck said. "Now, it's beautiful."

Tuesday's clinic gave children from the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood a chance to break in the new court and learn about healthy lifestyle choices from basketball professionals. Former Harlem Globetrotter Charles "Choo" Smith Jr., former Maryland Terps star Ernie Graham and Washington Mystics center Krystal Thomas led the children through various drills focused on their ball-handling, agility and footwork.

"I remember being out here, at their age playing on an outdoor court learning the game," Thomas said, "so to be able to turn the other foot to give back to the community really means a lot to me."

The children rotated through seven stations, each featuring a drill or challenge with a different fitness emphasis. Kamar Ferguson, a 9-year-old from West Baltimore, said the clinic allowed him to practice his shot and crossover dribble, and gave him advice on how to eat healthy.

"I learned how to be a basketball player, and I thank them for helping because I needed more help to play basketball," he said.

Alston-Buck said that because the neighborhood is a food desert, many children in the area suffer from obesity. She said Sandtown-Winchester is also not the safest community for kids, prompting many to stay inside and play video games rather than play outdoors.

Following the event, Kaiser Permanente presented the Kids Safe Zone with a WNBA Fit Kit, containing basketballs, jump ropes and other playground equipment. The new court and supplies will help encourage kids to play outside and stay moving, Alston-Buck said.

"There's such a stigma about working out," she said. "There's no gym in this community, there's no track here. So what we've been doing is showing kids how to do things which they in turn can take home."

Graham, who hails from Baltimore and played for the Terps from 1978 through 1981, said the event gave the local youths a perspective that they may not have been used to seeing in the neighborhood. As someone who struggled with substance abuse for many years, he said it's imperative children stay productive, active and keep away from drugs.

"A substance can ultimately destroy a future that could be very bright," he said.

Sean Hanrahan, clinician for NBA Cares and NBA Fit events, said he helps coordinate similar fit clinics around the country. His hope, he said, for these events is to "create a moment" in which children realize they can make lifestyle changes to maximize their potential.

"If we can create one or two of those moments, it'll help them dream big," he said.

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