On cold Tuesday and Thursday nights this fall, kids from Winnipeg's inner city have had an extra indoor option for fun and exercise.
A free 10-week program, conceived by the staff at Athletics Manitoba, has brought track and field training to students ranging from the primary to high school levels.
The organizers love their sport but they're also touting the spinoff benefits of exposing kids to this type of training.
"When you think about it track and field is running, jumping and throwing and almost all sports needs running and jumping," says Brooke-Lynn Boyd, Athletics Manitoba's community development co-ordinator.
"Basketball has running and jumping. Volleyball has jumping, so it's a base. That why I like track and field so much, it's so multipurpose. It doesn't really matter what your skill set is, you can start anywhere."
Boyd, a shot-putter during her days at the University of Manitoba, says partnering with the Rising Star Foundation, was an important step in making the event a success.
Rising Star founders Wilfred Sam-King and Alhaji Mansaray have deep connections in the inner city and the early response to the program has been strong and growing.
"When Athletics Manitoba and Brooke contacted us to partner on this program it was really exciting because typically we have programming like this during our learning loss periods, which is summer and Christmas break," says Sam-King, whose non-profit foundation provides scholarships and mentorship opportunities to youth in underserved communities,
If you want evidence that the initiative is connecting with its intended audience, you only need to see the enthusiastic smiles pasted on the faces of the young participants.
"I just like that we get to do a little bit of everything here," says 13-year-old Tian Sakendu during a recent session at the University of Winnipeg's Axworthy Health & RecPlex. "We do field (events), then we do some high jumping and then we're focused on the track."
Tian, who also participates in volleyball and basketball at his school, isn't alone.
Armaan Toor, 12, has attended every session and expects to return in the New Year when they program is rebooted for the winter and spring.
"The best part of this is I like the discuss throw – I like the field events," says Armaan, who was one of approximately two dozen participants when the Free Press visited. "It isn't bad for my legs but that's why I'm here — to improve my legs for the track."
Oliver Maula brought his 11-year-old brother Kyle to the sessions and has been inspired to get into coaching himself.
"It's like one of the first opportunities for this in this area, I think," says Oliver Maula, 22. "Because as a kid, I was always wanting to do something like this and I didn't get the chance."
Asked what the impact has been on his brother, he says: "Oh yeah, his form is better than before."
Boyd says she was able to tap into her connections with Athletics Manitoba to recruit certified coaches and generate funding to support bus service for those who might not easily reach the U of W campus on their own. They have been getting the word out by social media and word of mouth.
Now, participants are bringing their friends along to experience the fun.
"Transportation was hard to figure out because you can't always just talk to the parents," she says. "For some of the parents English isn't the best, so there's a language barrier, but it's been pretty good and I'd say we're doing a pretty good job for a new project."
Sam-King, who was born in Sierra Leone and came to Canada as a refugee as a six-year-old, is well-acquainted with the newcomer experience. He estimates 90 per cent of the kids in the program have immigrant backgrounds and 20 per cent are refugees.
"The biggest thing is with single-parent homes is (the parents) might be working and getting these kids here is very difficult," he says. "So us being able to do a bus shuttle and pick them up and be present is huge. That's that's the biggest thing."
Sam-King says providing mentorship is crucial. He remembers being inspired by teachers to get his start in sports at Victoria-Albert School in the inner city before he moved to the south end, attending Fort Richmond Collegiate.
"My mother and family and people that really supported me, not only on the field of play because I was athletically gifted from young age, but it was also the mentorship (they provided) and you'll see pockets of it everywhere," says Sam-King, who was an outstanding sprinter and long jumper in his days at the U of M. "And that's what really enticed us to (partner with) Athletics Manitoba. We are able to bring a lot of our programming into this."
Melanie Gregg, a U of W professor of sports psychology and long-time university jumping coach, lends her coaching expertise to the program.
"I think it's really important to provide opportunities for kids to be physical and have different experiences and really track and field is such a foundational sport," said Gregg. "And so this way all these kids get to try all the different events and not just sprinting or one of the other events."
Gregg also teaches a track and field class in the U of W's kinesiology department and she plans to bring her students in to run a small track meet for the kids at the end of the 10-week program.
"I think it's really important for kids to come to the university and see that it's like a normal place for them," says Gregg.
Sam-King will be looking for ways to improve the experience after the holiday break.
"Through our program, we talk and we make sure that these kids have a holistic experience," he says. "Athletics is great. It's building community. It's building strong relationships, especially in the inner city and kids that are from kind of surrounding area."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.