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New Howard after-school sports program seeks to provide middle schoolers with a space to play, make friends

Murray Hill Middle School’s gym came alive on a recent Tuesday afternoon in March, with more than 30 students wearing gold-colored shirts either dribbling a basketball or perfecting their set for volleyball.

This wasn’t an extra gym class or sports teams practicing, but rather a pilot session of the new after-school sports program being offered to Howard County middle schoolers.

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Recreation-Inspired Sports for Everyone, known as RISE, started in February. The coed program looks to fill the activity gap for middle school students between the end of the school day until the early nighttime hours. Its winter session was a pilot program offered at three middle schools.

The winter session was cut short by two weeks amid coronavirus concerns. All Howard County public schools are closed through March 27 as the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the state. Pending any continued school closures, the spring session is scheduled to begin at the end of April.

RISE was created by the county Department of Recreation and Parks, the Howard County Public School System and the Horizon Foundation, an independent philanthropy dedicated to improving the health and wellness of county residents.

Middle school students play after school twice a week for two hours. The first session of each week focuses on drills and skills, while the second session has students get into teams and play scrimmages.

In the inaugural winter session, 94 middle schoolers participated across three middle schools: Murray Hill, Bonnie Branch and Thomas Viaduct. There were 33 participating students at Murray Hill, 32 at Bonnie Branch and 29 at Thomas Viaduct.

Participating schools had the option to offer basketball, soccer and volleyball. The decision of which sports were offered depended on student interest and available equipment.

Jordan Dean, a Murray Hill sixth grader, was interested in basketball when he first joined RISE. While he misses football during the winter months, he’s happy to be playing another sport he enjoys.

“It’s really fun when you see other kids after school and you cooperate really well during the games,” Jordan, 11, said.

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A $150,000 grant from the Horizon Foundation provided seed money, as well as funding to assist in providing school buses to take the children home after the program.

“It’s really important all kids in Howard County have access to physical activity,” said Nikki Highsmith Vernick, president and CEO of the Horizon Foundation.

Access to sports allows kids to live healthy lives and reduces the risk of chronic disease, she said.

RISE is a “perfect marriage” between Horizon, parks and rec, and the school system to provide physical activity opportunities, Highsmith Vernick added.

Students who participate in the school system’s free and reduced-price meals program, or FARMS, pay $35 for the program and do not pay for the bus home. Other students pay $70 to play and $40 for the bus.

Students receive a snack during each session and a T-shirt to wear each time, the color matching their individual school’s colors.

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Sandra Lambert, county parks and rec sports coordinator, said kids participating in sports are learning more than a skill and staying active; playing sports foster friendships and mentorships, she said.

Growing up in a military family, Lambert moved a lot but always found a sports team to join to make friends and have a sense of belonging in a new place.

Having a transportation option to get students home is a great help for parents, Lambert said.

“The fact that we have this program that allows them to come right after school and do their practice and have their game and then get a ride home is exactly what many of the parents and kids I knew had an issue with,” Lambert said.

Six schools, including the three participating, were offered the opportunity to host the inaugural winter sessions. The remaining middle schools that will hopefully begin a program soon are Elkridge Landing, Lake Elkhorn and Oakland Mills.

“Anything we can provide for our kids after school is a positive,” said Lisa Smithson, principal of Murray Hill Middle. “The kids are really into the activities.”

Parks and rec is organizing each session’s program, hiring the coaches and handling all program management duties. The school system is providing gym space, equipment and snacks. School liaisons are coordinating with parents and students as well as helping with marketing.

Besides working on drills and discovering a passion for sports, students are able to make new friends. RISE is coed and open to all middle school grade levels, allowing for sixth, seventh and eighth graders to have an opportunity to get to know one another.

“A nice thing about sports is it doesn’t matter your grade level. When you join a sports team, you become part of that team,” Lambert said.

“And now when you walk down the hall and say ‘Hi’ to Bob, he will say ‘Hi’ to you. It doesn’t matter you’re a sixth grader and he’s an eighth grader; he’s on your team.”

The teams are picked by the coaches, Lambert said, so no student feels left out. She said she has been amazed to see students who may be particularly good at a sport help other students without even being asked.

Lambert said this act can lead to students offering a helping hand in the classroom and beyond.

“If I learn that I should help someone that is not good in sports, that will carry on that I will help someone that is not good in math,” Lambert said.

Sixth grader Kayla Kopp has always liked sports but could never figure out which sport was for her. By joining RISE and alternating sports, she is discovering a variety of activities.

“I’m in volleyball now. I like the teamwork,” Kayla, 12 said.

Kayla also gets to spend time with her aunt Chelsey Barrett, who is a RISE volunteer coach. After going through a background check and training program, Barrett was ready to go.

Barrett sees the program as a great way for Kayla to make new friends, for them to spend time together and for her to get back into sports after being an athlete growing up.

“Middle school is a trying time to be a kid … but [RISE] lets them know we can support each other, be kind to one another,” Barrett said.

“They get the opportunity to be with [kids] of all levels and styles while everyone is supporting each other and having fun.”

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