‘An incredible impact’: Poor kids are being priced out of youth sports. Here’s one solution.

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As poor children around the country get priced out of expensive youth sports leagues, a volunteer baseball coach in suburban Maryland has devised a novel solution to one of many financial barriers.

It’s a small, square checkbox.

Marc Berk, a health policy researcher, got the checkbox idea on vacation in New York. He noticed that museum-goers who couldn’t pay the requested donation fee had to explain why — a demeaning procedure. He wondered whether something similar kept lower-income families away from youth sports.

Berk persuaded officials in Gaithersburg to amend their fee-waiver process. Instead of requiring families to fill out forms proving their need, administrators added a checkbox to the sign-up form. It says, “I am a resident of the City, and I am requesting a waiver of all fees.”

Waiver requests soared by 1,200 percent. Participation jumped 31 percent; for children who attend high-poverty schools, it shot up almost 80 percent.

“Just doing this one small thing had an incredible impact for a lot of families,” said Berk, who published his findings this summer in the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration.

The fee — $50 today, but $40 during the study period in 2009 — was covered by a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant, so the change cost the city nothing. Now, having read the results of the study, Gaithersburg officials are considering making the waiver process permanent, which could increase costs for providing youth sports by at least several thousand dollars. There is also a risk of waiver fraud.

But city officials say they are weighing those downsides against a growing body of research that says participation in youth sports improves physical and mental health, lowers crime and teen pregnancy rates, and increases college enrollment.

“Is this a service that you now provide like police or other non-revenue-generating departments?” City Manager Tony Tomasello asked. “They don’t make any money, but they benefit the public. Are we trying to fund a public benefit, or are we trying to fund health and fitness? Obviously it’s both, but I think it’s really gravitating toward more of a social benefit.”

Tomasello, Berk and youth sports experts also acknowledge that waiving fees at the city level addresses only one of the barriers that keep poor children from signing up to play soccer or baseball.

Transportation is a crucial issue, with many single parents juggling multiple jobs and multiple children who need to be in multiple places. Also, Gaithersburg is somewhat atypical in organizing leagues. Many cities and counties have exited youth sports, an arena now largely controlled by independent leagues that charge hundreds of dollars in fees, either for recreational programs or more expensive travel teams.

How does that look on the field?

Last year, nearly 70 percent of children from families making more than $100,000 played team sports, according to Project Play, an initiative on youth sports from the nonprofit Aspen Institute. That figure is nearly cut in half for families making less than $25,000.

And the greatest irony, experts say, is this: A youth sports culture that places an immense emphasis on winning — mostly cultivated by parents — is leaving some of the best athletes and potential teammates behind.

They can’t afford to swing $300 bats or lace up $250 hockey skates, and fewer are able to compete for college scholarships. In 1993, 12.6 percent of scholarship athletes came from families making $100,000 or more, according to an analysis of NCAA statistics. By 2008, that number doubled.

“It’s extremely frustrating, and it’s also extremely unfair,” said Diego Uriburu, executive director of Identity Inc., a Gaithersburg nonprofit group that helps Latino youth and their families in high-poverty areas. “These young people have natural athletic talent, and they are not getting to work on it. They don’t have the best coaches. They are excluded because they can’t afford it.”

Identity started its own soccer program a few years ago, using donations and money it receives from the county to hire coaches. At first, some players showed up without proper shoes. The organization now gets cleats and other equipment from Leveling the Playing Field, a Silver Spring organization that distributes donated sports gear in high-need communities.

Surveys of the more than 300 players in Identity’s program showed that playing soccer lowered delinquency rates and increased physical activity and emotional well-being. Nearly 60 participants have made their middle and high school teams, including seven “unaccompanied minors” who fled their countries.

“Sports is an entry point into a different lifestyle for them,” Uriburu said. “But for so many of these kids, they just can’t be a part of it.”

Earlier this year, Eva Gonzalez fled El Salvador with her 10-year-old son, immigrating to Gaithersburg, where she had family.

Initially, her son struggled to fit in at school. He did not speak English. He had no friends. He wasn’t happy. But then a spot opened up in an after-school soccer program at South Lake Elementary run by Family Services Inc., a Montgomery County social services organization.

Speaking through an interpreter, Gonzalez said that her son’s English was improving as he talked more to his soccer teammates, who had also become his close buddies.

“He is very happy when he plays, and now he would like to do more,” she said.

Innovative efforts to help families such as Gonzalez’s pop up every day around the country, including several national programs sponsored by Major League Baseball, the U.S. Soccer Federation, the National Basketball Association and other professional groups. Nike, ESPN and Dick’s Sporting Goods are also investing in leagues in rural or lower-income communities.

In Washington, the Nationals provide uniforms and hats to District youth baseball and softball leagues.

But money alone is not enough. Neither are more fields or free equipment. And even Berk, the policy analyst and part-time baseball coach behind the checkbox idea, knows it.

In his paper, Berk wrote that the vast majority of lower-income children in Gaithersburg “did not participate in its sports programs even with automatic approval of waiver applications.”

There are, he wrote, “other social obstacles that cannot be easily resolved.”

Like the Texas Baseball Ranch Elite Pitchers Boot Camp.

The next session is next month. There are three spots left.

“We are only interested,” the camp’s website says, “in coaching and training THE most dedicated of athletes.”

Three days, $1,999.