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Young Olympians
The Young Olympians Program is a partnership between RST, KCH and the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club.

Student-led Young Olympians Program aims to help disadvantaged youth

The idea of using sport and play to reduce conflict is almost as old as time itself. In fact, the original intent of the first recorded Olympic Games—held in 776 B.C. in Greece—was to levy at least a temporary truce between warring communities through athletic competition.

The work of Jon Welty Peachey—an associate professor in the Dept. of Recreation, Sport and Tourism in the College of Applied Health Sciences—doesn’t quite date back that far. But using sport as a vehicle for social change is something very much rooted in his youth.

“I played more individual sports, you know, cycling, track and field and such but my family had a very heavy social justice focus, so I had that foundation growing up,” said Welty Peachey. “I had a passion for social justice and with my sports background I saw ways to bring those together.”

Before Welty Peachey entered the world of academia, he worked for an organization called the Institute for International Sport, a Rhode Island-based company that ran sport-based youth development programs. One of the institute’s successes was Belfast United, a sports program that brought together Protestant and Catholic children in Northern Ireland.

“It was really focused on using sport as a peace-building bridge,” he said. “What I was doing was helping to organize these types of programs that can work at particular conflict resolution peacebuilding through sport.”

Welty Peachey pivoted to academics, finishing his PhD in Sport Management at the University of Connecticut in 2009. He came to the University of Illinois in 2013 and taught a course called Critical Issues and Sport. It was the passion of that class, and a trip to Greece for a conference revolving around sport for development that sparked him to start a local program.

“I said, ‘Why don't we form a registered student organization (RSO) that would bring together students who had some interest in social justice, play, sports, and recreation and making a difference in the community?” he said.

Some time later, Welty Peachey connected with Charles Burton, an RST alum who is now the CEO and executive director of the Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club in Champaign.

“I wanted to put together something that would get RST students involved in designing a program and leading it and running it,” Welty Peachey said.

From that idea was born the Young Olympians Program, a partnership between RST, KCH and the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club. The program uses Olympic values through sport and play to help enhance socio-emotional learning and academic efficacy among children and youth from disadvantaged backgrounds in Champaign County. The program—which uses Olympic values such as friendship, equality, determination and courage—is student-designed and led, with faculty oversight. More than 50 AHS student volunteers are involved in designing, implementing, and evaluating the program, Welty Peachey said, with this year’s program deploying on Feb. 14.

The students “love it,” Welty Peachey said, “because they're applying what they're learning in the classroom to the real world and making a difference with the children that they're working with.”

The AHS students are helping the participants, who range from 9-16 years old, develop social emotional learning and to believe that they can succeed and do well in school, he said. The activities are modified sports, such as volleyball with balloons, to maintain a level of competition but one that allows all of the children to participate.

Thirty children are chosen to take part in the program each year, with 25 AHS undergraduate students ready to volunteer this spring. The participants and the volunteers each are encouraged to fill out a journal detailing their experiences and activities, and parents are kept apprised of how their child is faring in the program.

“The program is intended to build friendships and relationships not just between the kids but also between the volunteers and the kids because building those relationships is really where change can occur when we have that modeling going on,” Welty Peachey said.

“It's not just the instructors standing on the sidelines and giving direction but it's playing together, non-traditional games and activities.”

The high ratio of student to participant means the children get a high level of support, with some children getting one-on-one outreach.

“The thing I'm so pleased with is the student involvement,” Welty Peachey said. “Our students have embraced this and want to make a difference. I'm really thrilled about the outcome, not just impacting the children, but impacting our students and helping them expand their perspectives and interact with children that they wouldn't normally interact with who are from backgrounds that are maybe a little more disadvantaged and marginalized and really need a lot of love and support. To see our students doing that, I think, is what we're really all about in many ways, how we make a difference.”

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