The Power of Sport to Create Healthier Children and Healthier Communities

Brown’s Swearer Center and the Hassenfeld Institute Forge a New Partnership.

Since 1986, the Swearer Center for Public Service at Brown University has connected students, faculty, and local partners through community engagement, engaged scholarship and social innovation. A new Swearer initiative that brings together Brown student-athletes and Providence children to improve access to sport, includes a partnership with the School’s Hassenfeld Child Health and Innovation Institute.

The program had its start in the Summer of 2018 when the Swearer Center’s Global Sport Leadership Initiative launched the Global Sport Community Fellows Program. The summer fellowship brought ten Brown University student-athletes into community-based organizations in six of Providence’s most under-resourced neighborhoods. The fellows coached children 6-12 years of age, teaching them new skills and providing opportunities for exercise in a supportive, fun environment. The Global Sport Program aims to strengthen the capacity of Providence organizations to deliver youth sports opportunities, but its ultimate goals are much loftier.

“ Children in Providence neighborhoods want the same opportunities that children in more affluent suburbs are afforded: safe places to play and access to a range of sports. ”

Kerrissa Heffernan Director of Swearer’s Global Sport Initiative

Research consistently shows that engagement in sport enhances children’s intellectual, affective, and civic development, and increases their sense of agency over their bodies. Exercise improves attention, memory, and problem-solving skills, but the single greatest determinant of childhood sports participation is family income. Significant disparities in access to sport and its positive health outcomes exist. The Global Sport Community Fellows Program believes that leveraging “university assets, strong community partnerships, and committed student athletes can address some of Providence’s most pressing public health needs.”

Kaitlyn Camacho-Orona, AB-MPH’19, a 2018 Sport Fellow who played softball at Brown, agrees.

“I believe access to sports is particularly important given the critical—but often overlooked—role that sport plays in public health,” Kaitlyn said. “Participation in sports among children is strongly correlated with academic achievement, healthy behaviors, and overall greater quality of life.”

Global Sport Community Fellows teach swimming skills and introduce new sports like rugby and lacrosse to Providence children, but these student-athletes also gain a deeper understanding of the tremendous assets within communities and the ways in which university partnerships can foster children’s health and neighborhood health.

According to the Director of Swearer’s Global Sport Initiative, Kerrissa Heffernan, “Brown University student athletes are uniquely positioned to enhance the capacity of community organizations to deliver and sustain sport opportunities. [pull quote] By connecting academic and athletic programming,” she said, “Brown is also in the position of translating research and facilitating new community-research partnerships.”

An exciting new partnership forged by Heffernan and the Hassenfeld Institute will bridge public health and sport by bringing Hassenfeld Scholars into the Community Sport Fellows program. These students will pair with community partner organizations to develop and run sport programs, and to explore the development of programming that’s sustainable into the academic year and beyond. This summer, the Global Sport Initiative will work with the Hassenfeld Institute and community partners to understand access to sport for Providence children and to explore the ways in which sport can intervene on specific health concerns.

“Children in Providence neighborhoods want the same opportunities that children in more affluent suburbs are afforded: safe places to play and access to a range of sports,” Heffernan said. The Swearer Center’s Global Sport Initiative is working to create those opportunities, and giving public health students the chance to engage with the community in ways that improve neighborhood health for the long term.