An ordinary moment inspired Renata Simril to come up with an extraordinary idea to get kids active and give them something familiar in a shuttered and uncertain world.
Simril is president and chief executive officer of the LA84 Foundation, a private organization that was funded by the surplus generated by the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Its mission is to encourage kids’ development through structured sports, and it has given grants to more than 3,300 youth sports organizations in southern California for teaching, equipment and training for coaches. Its headquarters on West Adams Avenue houses an impressive sports library and has played host to special events and conferences that promote the importance of youth sports and of giving opportunity for girls to participate.
Because of the coronavirus-driven Safer at Home order issued by Los Angeles County, Simril was working from home one day recently when she saw her 12-year-old son Sebastian take a break from studying and go to the garage in search of something to do for “recess.” Simril joined him.
“We pulled out some balls and table tennis and paddle tennis and a volleyball,” she said. “I’m engaging him in sports activity because I live our mission to stay active. And it dawned on me that the families we serve don’t have the same opportunities.”
From that epiphany came a plan to distribute gear that kids can use in small areas by themselves or at proper social distance from others. They’re not just toys. For some kids, they’re lifelines. “Certainly you can’t go to the park, you’re not in school and many of the families we serve are choosing between food and rent. Play equipment is at the tail end of something that they’re going to prioritize,” Simril said.
Calling on friends and corporations, she collected 600 soccer balls and basketballs, plus jump ropes, disc golf and badminton sets. The foundation partnered with the L.A. Unified School District to distribute the equipment the past two weeks at schools that are serving as Grab and Go meal centers while classes are suspended.
The first distribution sites were Garfield, Dorsey, Fremont and San Fernando high schools. Others will follow in the coming weeks. “Those are some of the highest-need areas by determinant of the number of meals they serve on a weekly basis,” said Simril, who grew up in Carson. “To actually see the families lined up, in person and in the cars and wrapped around the building, really showed the impact of not just the COVID-19 crisis but unearthed a lot of broken systems, one of which is food insecurity.
“But not withstanding that, the gratitude, the thanks, the hope and inspiration and certainly the joy and the smiles on kids’ and parents’ faces after getting a golf disc set or a jump rope, just really helped inspire me and my team to continue sourcing as much equipment as we can to help more kids.”
The equipment costs are negligible. “You can, for $250, get 100 jump ropes into families’ hands, so it’s very attainable for people who want to do something to help but can’t write big checks,” Simril said. “A $10 check buys two soccer balls. It’s a very real, tangible and impactful way for individuals, corporations and brands to make a difference.”
The benefits have the potential to endure into what becomes the new normal, and for a lifetime.
“That small gesture has such impact,” Simril said, “particularly given what we know and what we believe to be the transformational power of sport and play, the physical and mental benefits that kids get out of sports and certainly the links between sport, movement, endorphins, serotonin and creating conditions for kids to deal with stress and anxiety. It’s also setting them up for good conditions to learn to stay focused. For us, it’s critically important for our mission in terms of what sport means for us and play means for us, to ensure we’re inspiring kids as best we can to stay active.”
Simril also enlisted local sports personalities to appear in videos that assure kids they’re not alone in this strange time and show them it’s easy to improvise ways to get exercise. In the videos, posted on playequityfund.org, Dodgers infielder Kiké Hernández spoke to kids in English and Spanish, displayed his cartwheel skills and made a game of throwing a ball against a fence and catching it. Molly Schaus, a two-time U.S. Olympic hockey goalie who’s now fan development marketing manager for the Ducks, demonstrated lower-body exercises and used a chair in a stickhandling drill. Chargers running back Austin Ekeler substituted a pair of shoes for cones in an agility drill and worked on hand-eye coordination by throwing tennis balls against a wall. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s effective and accessible.
Giving play equipment to youth & families for @LASchools to #StayActiveStayStrong is supported by videos from athletes to encourage #PlayAtHome. Watch this amazing video by @kikehndez – the @Dodgers human highlight reel, even in his backyard #PlayEquity pic.twitter.com/uPrSJC3qKE— LA84 Foundation (@LA84Foundation) April 20, 2020
Other planned videos will discuss posture, meditation, stretching and movement. “Just focusing on the mental health and being able to take that mental break,” Simril said. “Between the equipment and the videos it’s our way of pivoting our work to still be as impactful and supportive of communities in need as we can.”
Taking time to play now may be more important than it has ever been. “People refer to us as a youth sports organization,” Simril said. “Really, we’re a youth development organization, using sport as a hook.” And no one is too old to play, in whatever form available.