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College athletes help kids get active

Kids who are "out" in a game of freeze dodgeball sit on the ground and try to catch a ball and get back in the game. Photo by Ellie French.1 / 3
Sophia Gleeson-Wright gets ready to throw a ball in a game of freeze-dodgeball last Wednesday at the Heritage Center. Photo by Ellie French.2 / 3
Champions Building Champions program director Nathan Dixon helps set up a game of dodgeball. Photo by Ellie French.3 / 3

On Wednesday afternoons at the Heritage Sports Center, children from across the area can come together to play tag, Frisbee, or dodgeball, and be active while having fun with the Champions Building Champions program. Last week, one young athlete, Sophia Gleeson-Wright was happily immersed in a game of freeze-dodgeball, but still a little disappointed that soccer was not the game of the day.

"My favorite game to play is soccer, because I get to work on my running skills," said Gleeson-Wright, 6, who is one of about 30 youth involved in the program.

The Champions Building Champions program brings kids together with college athletes as positive role models once a week to play sports and games at the Heritage Sports Center.

"Champions Building Champions is a safe environment where kids can go and play and not have to worry about anything, like being discriminated against because of the color of their skin or being a girl," said program director Nathan Dixon.

The program is free for youth age 5 years old through high school. Most of the children are recruited through the Boys and Girls Club at the Heritage Center, though it is open to anyone. They work with college athletes, usually from University of Minnesota Duluth and St. Scholastica, to have fun and improve their skills.

"We play various sports, from backyard games like tag and hide-and-go-seek to basketball and football," Dixon said. "We'll play any game that you use your feet for, running around with freeze tag, pin down, capture the flag, football, soccer and anything like that are the kinds of games we play."

The program is organized by the city of Duluth parks and recreation department and Men as Peacemakers, an organization dedicated to helping at-risk women and children. Dixon works for the Men as Peacemakers, the parent organization of the Champions Building Champions program.

"We work with kids so they can understand why violence is wrong, why trying to ostracise girls for being a girl is wrong, why bullying is wrong, why it's not OK to pick on someone and what you should do if you do see someone getting picked on," Dixon said. "It's just all about building safe communities, and we do that by building these programs, there are a lot of different ways that we work to promote change because this change starts in our community. Someone has to do something, and Men as Peacemakers is that someone."

The program helps to make a positive difference in the lives of these children, and the community as a whole.

"Champions Building Champions is very important to the community because a lot of these kids may not have a safe place or even people to talk to," Dixon said. "When you come to Champions Building Champions, not only do you have a safe place to come play, be yourself, and ask questions, but you have adults you can talk to, you have college athletes and volunteers you can talk to, anybody you need to voice your concern to or just to ask questions."

Both the kids and the volunteers enjoy the program, and its impact on the community.

"My favorite thing about leading the program is definitely the kids," Dixon said. "You get to see them and have them be excited when you walk in the room. They look forward to seeing you and feel safe, and know that we're gonna have a good time. A lot of the schools that I work in a lot of the kids tell me that I'm the only safe adult that they know, or I'm the only adult that they trust. I really take that in, and appreciate that they trust me enough to tell me that things are going on in their life, that you know that I'm going to do the right thing with that information."

The Champions Building Champions program will continue at the Heritage Center throughout the summer, and then return to the Lincoln Park Boys and Girls Club in the fall.

"The kids in this program are great, they are so entertaining, and absolutely great to work with," said Jenna Algoo, a volunteer for the program and senior at St. Scholastica. "They don't get to see college students outside like this, just playing sports and having fun with them in an active way, so that's really great."

WHAT: Youth play games with collegiate athletes

WHEN: Wednesdays, from 1-3 pm

June 24 through Aug. 19

WHERE:Duluth Heritage Sports Center, 120 S. 30th Ave. W.

COST: Free