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Amy Gutmann spoke as part of a launch of a new sports program between West Philly elementary schools and Penn Athletics.

Photo: Lulu Wang

In a school district where sports programming — and funding for it — has suffered with budget cuts, Penn Athletics and the Netter Center for Community Partnerships are partnering to bring sports into the lives of elementary and middle schoolers.

Penn President Amy Gutmann helped to announce the launch of the Young Quakers Community Athletics Program at Franklin Field Thursday evening.

YQCA is an after-school sports program that pairs women’s and men’s lacrosse and track & field teamswith local students in three of the Penn’s University Assisted Community Schools located in West Philadelphia.

About 70 Penn students, administrators, parents and the schools’ principals gathered for the event. Third district Councilwoman Jannie Blackwellwas in attendance, as well. The event was followed by a sports demonstration where the “Big Quakers” and the “Young Quakers” gave onlookers a idea of what their weekly sessions together would look like with pickup lacrosse games and fun sprints.

As part of the program, the local students have access to Penn’s sports fields for the activities. Penn provides all the staff, coaches, uniforms, sports equipment and bus transportation.

“We really want to educate our students to pay it forward,” Gutmann said. “We want all these students to be really ambitious and come to places like Penn.”

Penn Athletes work with students on the field and off — a half hour of academic and mentorship activities accompany a hour of sports and team-building exercises about once a week.

While today was the official kick-off of the first formal partnership between the Netter Center and Penn Athletics, the men’s lacrosse team has been working with fourth to sixthgrade students at Comegys Elementary School since 2012 as part of a pilot program. 

Comegys eighth grader Zaire Witherspoon — or, as Gutmann called him, "Big Z" — said that knowing he has the support of his mentors at Young Quakers has made a difference in his life. “I have learned a great deal about college life,” he said. “Lacrosse has given me a new respect for athleticism.”

College junior Gabrielle Cuccia said the highlight of her week is when she and her teammates on the women’s track & field team play music and chat with the students about their crushes and their classes at the beginning of their weekly sessions together.

“You just want people to hear you,” she said of kids around middle school age and “to have someone always there to listen is really powerful.”

Cuccia said that Young Quakers give Penn athletes the chance to break out of the so-called “Penn bubble” and allows for bonding among members of the team.

Both the Netter Center and Penn Athletics hope to see the program expand in the future.

Director of the Netter Center Ira Harkavy said the main priority is to do what works for both the schools and the actual sports teams’ needs. “We want to be sure it’s an appropriate next step that will be successful,” he said, “But I have no doubt, and I know this for a fact, that there is great interest from other teams and other students.”

“A couple of our varsity programs have been doing this for a few years now, with positive impact, and we look forward to expanding our outreach with more of our teams working with more local schools.” Director of Athletics and Recreations M. Grace Calhoun wrote in an email.

Men’s lacrosse coach Michael Murphy said Young Quakers provides a way for his athletes to do service to the community while also helping to grow the sport of lacrosse.

“It’s a lot of fun and our players enjoy it, it’s mutually beneficial,” he said. “They get to represent the University the right way — a university that’s giving them a huge amount — and they get to give back to a sport that's given them a great deal.”

The level of consistent engagement of Young Quakers can be challenging due to the students’ sporadic attendance at times, Murphy said. “These are adolescent boys in Philadelphia with a school district that is struggling,” he said, noting how they deal with all kinds of issues in their own lives. “You don’t know what they’re getting into when they’re leaving the sport,” he added.

For Penn athletes, “It gives them a little perspective,” Murphy said. “They might think they’re having a bad day and then some of these kids are in a worse situation than they are.”

Principal at Comegys Elementary Lisa Wilmer said that after seeing the boys learn lacrosse, the girls at Comegys wanted to be involved, too, and they had the chance starting last fall. “It’s beyond sports — they look forward to coming to Penn’s campus,” she said.

Harkavy said Young Quakers has the potential to be a framework for other universities to engage their athletic departments with the local community. He said the program helps Penn students to develop habits of citizenship and “exemplifies that idea of a citizen-scholar-athlete.”

“We want to show here in West Philadelphia how we can be a national model," Gutmann said.

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