Nutrition and fitness are an important part of healthy childhood development. However, thousands of Chicagoland children lack access to fresh foods, youth enrichment, sports and fitness programs and other outlets for healthy eating and physical activity.
Beyond access to fitness programs and opportunities, proper gear, supportive coaching, safe facilities and live-saving medical supplies — as Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin’s on-field cardiac arrest and treatment with an AED (automated external debrillator) so poignantly reminded us — are also critical to widespread safety and equity across youth sports.
To help respond to this need, we’ve compiled this list of local and national organizations dedicated to helping children incorporate health, fitness and wellness into their lives.
How To Help:
KEEN, a national nonprofit organization with a branch in Chicago, is committed to empowering youth with disabilities “through participation in free, non-competitive, one-on-one programs of physical activity and fun, supporting the overall health and well-being of all participants.” Their efforts are part of a larger mission to create communities in which those with disabilities are able to live a life of equal opportunity.
Sports, yoga, music, art, dance, even jiu jitsu are just some of the programs they offer to participants ages 5-21. The organization is volunteer-run and intentionally tailors programs to each athlete’s needs “regardless of severity of disabilities.” Their necessary work has piqued the interest of others in the media as well — see KEEN’s recent feature on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
Support KEEN by donating, volunteering and spreading the word.
Approximately 1 in 7 kids experience food insecurity, according to Action For Healthy Kids — an organization that helps children thrive by bridging the gap between families and schools “to ensure students have access to safe places to play and be active, nutritious foods and healthy, supportive experiences.” Meeting all of these needs is crucial for children, especially in early development. With programs like NourishEd, which offers a comprehensive approach to nutrition and improved food access, students are able to take control and be mindful of their choices to prepare for life ahead. Not only does AFHK connect schools and families with programs, but they are also responsible for making sure those programs actually get instituted by offering additional tools and resources to educators.
Chicago Run is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the power of running, and more specifically, providing young people from pre-K to high school with inclusive running and physical activity programs. “We … use running as a catalyst to transform lives. Through the power of sport, we build resilience to stress and trauma and develop social and emotional skills.” Early investment in these skills can lead to success down the road, both on and off the track.
Chicago Run has a special focus on offering programming in under-resourced communities, where some kids might traditionally have limited access to physical activity programs. With in-school, out-of-school and virtual programs, CR is meeting people where they are, including youth who are in Cook County Juvenile Detention.
Some of the organization’s success can be attributed to Executive Director Danya Rosen, who was just named one of Better’s 2023 Top Health, Wellness and Fitness Influencers. To join Rosen and the whole team in bringing positive fitness programs to Chicagoland kids, visit the Chicago Run website to learn more and donate.
Chicago Youth Foundation believes “active youth do better in life” and the organization is committed to ensuring metro Chicago kids have access to ice sports. Annually, CYF serves over 2,000 Chicagoland youth from grades K-8.
Even a $25 donation can cover one year of USA Hockey/US Figure Skating registration fees for one participant. Visit Chicago Youth Foundation for more information and to donate.
Rise & Shine Illinois is committed to addressing the food insecurity many Chicagoland students suffer from in silence by focusing on three main tiers: Breakfast, After-School and Summer Meals. Since 2012, in partnership with Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign and the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Rise & Shine has worked to end childhood hunger in our state by giving kids access to healthy meals.
In America, many programs built to assist students facing hunger fall short, such as the free or reduced price school breakfast program, which left 440,000 eligible students unserved in the 2015-2016 school year alone.
Visit Rise & Shine Illinois to help them change this.
Well known for its humanitarian efforts and response in times of crisis, the Red Cross also has a special interest in preparing folks for everyday occurrences and concerns — that includes programs like installing residential fire alarms and CPR/First Aid courses. The latter can prepare anyone of any age for a moment of medical alarm. Additionally, they offer hands-on, in-school programs to boost wide-spread understanding that a simple maneuver could save a life. The earlier the intervention, the more likely it will stick for years to come, though they do recommend annually refreshing your certification. For more information on how to get involved with their life-saving programs, head over to the Redcross.org.
Tragedy can strike in an instant on the field, and often it is exacerbated by lack of medical supplies. In 2008, Jenny Snyder was playing a soccer game when suddenly she went into cardiac arrest from an undetected heart condition. There was no automated external deﬁbrillator (AED) available at the time. Because of this, Jenny passed away. This preventable and yet unthinkable tragedy is what spurred the The Jennifer Lynn Snyder Teen Heart Foundation — launched by her family, spearheaded by her mother Michele Snyder — which oversees the AED Grant program to assist other communities in fully equipping their sporting events.
Jenny’s story is not too dissimilar from that of Damar Hamlin, who was able to overcome the initial impact of his injury thanks to an AED machine being present on the field. This should be the norm across all sports at every level to save the lives of young athletes. To help further their mission and to help save young lives, donate to the The Jennifer Lynn Snyder Teen Heart Foundation.
For many families, not “having the time, basic knowledge or all the ‘right things’ to cook” can be a barrier to nutritious meals. Common Threads’ approach aims to alleviate that through cooking and nutrition education programs, designed for both children and adults. With a special emphasis on helping underserved communities — often declared food deserts — the organization offers information and lessons to not only help families make “affordable, nutritious and appealing food choices” but gives them the building blocks to continue to do so.
Virtual and in-person classes include Family Cooking Class, Cooking Skills & World Cuisine, Small Bites — an eight-lesson class for students about nutrition and healthy snack making — and many more. But it’s not just cooking — this national nonprofit’s work is helping kids improve their relationship with food and how they value nutrition overall. To help this organization, visit the Common Threads.
Carving out a slice of the sports world just for young girls to become their best selves is what Girls in the Game is all about. They use a model called Sport-Based Youth Development where “the goal is not to create all-star athletes, but instead to help participants practice vital social-emotional skills through sport.” In the hopes that ”every girl finds her voice, discovers her strength and leads with confidence,” services range from summer to after school to one-time programs, as well as seasonal sport clinics and teen clubs.
The success of this organization comes from their holistic approach, which allows participants to channel “the power of girls” through cooperation, strength and uniqueness. The organization is accepting of girls of any gender identity or expression. Learn more and donate at Girls in the Game.
“Most people are surprised to learn preventable injuries are the number one killer of kids in the United States,” says Safe Kids, which has a number of branches throughout Illinois, including two in Chicagoland. With programs like safety workshops, sports clinics and even car-seat checkups, Safe Kids is responsible for assisting parents and caregivers in preventing childhood injuries. They work “with an extensive network of more than 400 coalitions in the United States and with partners in more than 30 countries to reduce traffic injuries, drownings, falls, burns, poisonings and more.”
Since 1988, they have worked across the country to prioritize child safety. Learn more and donate at Safe Kids.
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Margaret Smith is a Chicago-based writer and editor with a passion for socio-political storytelling about their community. They are a graduate of Columbia College Chicago.