Virus crisis a challenge for youth fitness nonprofits

CHICAGO (AP) — Mariana Ochoa worries about the effect of the COVID-19 crisis on her three boys. Their school is closed. She can’t take them to their favorite park at the moment. There is no backyard at their home on the southwest side of Chicago.

The fitness routines she gets from Chicago Run are a weekly highlight for Mariano, 9, Victor, 7, and Jesus, 5.

“They forget about all this stuff when we’re doing exercise,” Mariana Ochoa said. “Especially when we do exercise, they go to a different world.”

Nonprofit organizations like Chicago Run have become a key component of communities across the United States in an era of big-budget youth sports, providing fitness opportunities and activities for children from middle- and low-income neighborhoods.

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The coronavirus pandemic has put many of those organizations in jeopardy, robbing them of locations for their programs and straining their already limited sources for funding.

“In the current climate, we’re concerned about our ability to maintain this programming at the same level,” said Danya Rosen, the executive director of Chicago Run.

Chicago Run normally serves about 18,000 students at 60 locations throughout the city, mostly at schools. It has fall, winter and spring sessions, along with a smaller summer program.

The ages range from preschool children to high school kids. About 85% of its participants come from low-income households.

“That’s why Chicago Run exists, to ensure that young people have equitable opportunities to engage in fitness and running programs,” Rosen said. “So what we do then, specifically, is we use running and physical activity then as a vehicle to not just develop physical health but also mental health.

”Our program builds resilience to stress and trauma, which is incredibly important in many of our communities experiencing rampant violence and trauma, and also to develop other social and emotional skills.”

After its winter season was suspended because of COVID-19, Chicago Run started creating virtual programming. The transition has been a challenge.

Some families have limited access to wireless internet or digital devices. The connection between coaches and participants also “is really hard to duplicate when you’re doing it digitally,” said Lauren Shirk, the direction of communications for Chicago Run.

Mariana Ochoa, who left her job in March to take care of her children after their school was shut down, said she hasn’t been able to use the online sessions because her computer is getting fixed. But Chicago Run sends out emails with its fitness routines, and she reads them on her phone before she goes through the workouts with her kids.

“If I don’t know some sort of exercise, I will Google it or I’ll YouTube it and I’ll let them know how to do the routine,” the 26-year-old Ochoa said. “Mariano is a big help because he’s been in the program since last year.”

Mariano ran a 5K race last summer. He said he likes going to Chicago Run “because we run and then when we run, we do games in the end.”

Chicago Run is planning to hold a virtual summer session. It could move to small in-person gatherings if restrictions are lifted. Officials hope to get back into schools in the fall, but nothing is certain at the moment.

In the meantime, Rosen said the organization is also assessing how programming “might look very different in the future and how do we continue just thinking creatively about the ways we respond to our community needs.”

“This is both a concern, but also a potential opportunity,” she said.

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Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap

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