SAN FRANCISCO – It’s 3 p.m. on a late July day at the two-story Boys and Girls Club Mission Clubhouse here on Alabama Street, and shutting down of the activities in the rooms upstairs has begun. Director Melissa Gibson is overseeing this as her staff is going around turning off computers and making sure everyone’s cell phones are put away.
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The rooms are decorated with cheerful artwork and there are kids everywhere. The gym is humming as children ages six through 18 are readying for Power Play, a physical activity program developed by the Club as part of its Health and Life Skills program. For a half hour each day, five days a week, participants throw themselves energetically into such activities as tag, handball and volleyball. Unfriendly competition is not encouraged. Activities are designed to improve participants’ overall fitness. The program is available throughout the year.
“They’ve got to get involved,” Gibson says.
Tavi Baker, the citywide health and fitness director for the Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco, says the four-year-old program evolved from the success of the Club’s Power Hour program, where children are helped for an hour each day with their homework.
Citywide, 28 percent of the members of the Boys and Girls Club are Latino, while 25 percent are African American. Here, in the Mission branch, 70 percent of its members are Latino and 6 percent are African American, their family incomes ranging from low to extremely low. On average, 60 percent of Mission Clubhouse members engage in a variety of physical activities for about 60 minutes each day, at least five days per week.
“We didn’t have a physical activity block until a few years ago,” Baker says. She says Power Play keeps kids from sedentary activities like sitting in front of the computers.
Kids do not need to be Clubhouse members to participate in Power Play, unless the Clubhouse is already at capacity. It is a drop-in class.
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Club staff wants children involved in the easily accessible activities Power Play offers. So competitive activities like soccer are not encouraged because they may exclude some children.
Gibson acknowledges that while it’s relatively easy to keep younger children involved in the Club’s physical activities, the staff finds it challenging to sustain the interest of members when life tends to get in the way. They’re worried about “trying to juggle a job, school work, potentially not graduating, having to take care of a sibling and also finding time to exercise,” she says. “Always, Sometimes, Never”
The Clubhouse also tries to encourage its young members to make small lifestyle changes. For example, they encourage kids to take the stairs instead of the elevator. They also stress the importance of eating right.
“Real wellness and fitness decisions are not made in a bubble,” Gibson observes. “They are made when you sit down with your whole family to eat. We realize we are not just enforcing something in the Clubhouse, but I do like that when we are here we are creating this environment.”
Baker says that the primary goal of their Health and Life Skills program is to “really increase physical activity, decrease sweetened beverages and increase consumption of fruits and vegetables.”
They do this by having periodical nutrition education cooking programs for the whole family. On display is a board where foods are classified into “Always, Sometimes, Never.”
“One of the hardest battles at the club has been Soda-Free Summer. As part of the always, sometimes, never food board, soda is a never,” Gibson says. “But [we are] mostly trying to make that connection and communication across from the kids to the parents. Often times [parents] think it’s a punitive rule.”
The cooking programs are the most popular in the summer.
“We ran a “Smoothie Yum” program, which met once a week and for two hours they created different kinds of smoothies together,” she says. “They were mostly fruit-based with some protein options.”
For a while the activities of the Club drew fewer girls than boys and that worried Club staff. To change that, Gibson started Girls Got Goals, a soccer league for girls.
“The best part was that we saw more of the girls show up to Power Play and other in-house activities. I’ve enjoyed seeing that change, especially since our teen females don’t have the same presence in our fitness programs.”
This article is sponsored by Healthy Hearts, a program of the San Francisco Department of Public Health that promotes free exercise for Latinos and African Americans as a way to fight heart disease. For free fitness information call 211. Follow #healthyheartsf on Facebook and Twitter.