Local children win with 10th PALS program

June 17, 2011

A group of campers participate in the 2010 Purdue Athletes Life Success Program. More than 500 underserved children, ages 8-14, will take part in this year's camp, which marks the program's 10th anniversary. More than 2,000 children from the Tippecanoe County area have participated since the first camp in 2002. The children are selected for this free camp based on referrals from local schools. (Purdue University file photo/Andrew Hancock)

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - What began 10 years ago as a program to teach children about healthy living through sports continues to step up its game with lessons about self-esteem, good choices and friendship that can last a lifetime.

More than 2,000 children from the Tippecanoe County area have participated in Purdue Athletes Life Success Program since the first camp in 2002. More than 500 underserved children, ages 8-14, reported on Thursday (June 16) to the four-week day camp that runs through July 15. The children are selected for this free camp based on referrals from local schools.

"The camp itself is an example of how positive support and resources can help something flourish," says Bill Harper, camp co-director and professor of health and kinesiology. "Just a few years ago, the future of the camp looked dim when the federal organizing program lost its funding, but we are so thankful for the support from the university, community and individuals who have not only kept this camp running but also helped it grow."

This support has allowed the program, previously known as the National Youth Sports Program, to increase from 300 to 500 campers each summer and expand activities from mainly sports to academic, life skills, financial literacy and art. No matter the topic, Harper says, the program always emphasizes four characteristics: respect, caring, responsibility and trust.

The program also works closely with local educators and administrators, especially from the Lafayette School Corp. where 350 students attend, to learn how the experience affects children throughout the year.

"We feel that from an academic, behavior and character standpoint, the PALS experience really benefits our students," said Glade Montgomery, assistant superintendent of the Lafayette School Corp. "At PALS they work on character development, work ethic and communication skills, which are all traits they can carry over through the school year. It's a great opportunity for these children to be able to attend a summer program where they can continue these educational values."

The campers, in groups of 20, participate in a variety of activities such as learning about nutrition, computers, careers and community service. Each station is spaced 10 minutes apart from the next to ensure students spend 70 minutes walking each day, in addition to the physical activities. The activity stations include swimming, basketball, soccer, volleyball, team handball, Zumba, stepping, juggling and Taekwondo.

"When we started 10 years ago, the camp focused on team sports, but we've evolved to teach students activities that they can engage in throughout their life," says Kim Lehnen, co-program director and operations assistant for the Department of Health and Kinesiology. "There is no timeout during the program because we keep the campers moving and engaged. We do provide lunch, and we've learned and observed that this peer interaction time is just as critical as anything we teach. For some campers, it's the only meal they sit at a table to enjoy with others."

Purdue Federal Credit Union, one of the program's supporters, also offers a financial literacy component for campers. Thanks to support from one of the program's major supporters, Purdue Federal Credit Union and Drew Brees' The Brees Dream Foundation, the program was able to change its name in 2008 to PALS. Brees is the former Boilermaker All-America quarterback and 2010 Super Bowl champion quarterback for the New Orleans Saints. He also has been the Purdue Federal Credit Union spokesperson since 2001.

The program also has a strong research component led by Meghan McDonough, an assistant professor of health and kinesiology, which provides feedback to improve the camp each year. For example, in 2007 they found that peer relationships and self-perceptions, such as self-esteem, improve during camp. Based on these findings, these characteristics were a focus during staff training, and the researchers saw improvements again the following year, such as motivation for physical activity and hope for the future.

The program has a retention rate of 60 percent, and some former campers are selected to serve as junior team leaders when they age out of the program. This year there are 11 junior team leaders and 24 team leaders, who are college students. Nine of these current team leaders also are past campers.

Before the name change, the national program honored Purdue's camps for its achievements, including being named best new program in 2002 and special recognition for its 2004 and 2005 programs. In 2009 the American Heart Association honored Harper with the Cor Vitae Award for enhancing the community through innovation, philanthropy, vision and leadership.

The National Youth Sports Program began in 1969, and in 2005 there were more than 200 programs nationwide. However, the program's federal funding was reduced, and in 2007 Purdue's program was one of only 56 in the nation to receive partial funding. Federal funding was withdrawn from all National Youth Sports Programs in 2007, but Purdue's camp successfully continues through university, private and corporate donor support and is now one of less than 10 such programs left in the nation, and the only one left in Indiana.

Writer:   Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu 

Sources:   Bill Harper, 765-494-3178, wharper@purdue.edu

                   Kim Lehnen, 765-494-3178, klehnen@purdue.edu

Note to Journalists: A celebration to mark the 10th anniversary of camp is 10 a.m. Wednesday (June 22). Journalists interested in attending should meet in front of Wiley Food Court on Jischke Drive. Half a dozen local teachers and education administrators are planning to visit and tour the 2011 PALS program to observe some of the 500 children who benefit from this 10-year-old program. Camp leaders, campers and educators also will be available to talk about their experiences with the program.