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Lifetime skills

Sports academy teaches kids so much more

There are other things in life than sitting in your room playing computer games. Don't you know about the health benefits of exercise and fresh air? Don't you know about the obesity epidemic? And yada, yada, yada.

Even if your kids won't listen to you, they may respond to the opportunities and potential rewards offered by the Lifetime Sports Academy, which wrapped up its 17th season a few days ago.

LSA is a summer program at McMillen Park, and you'll find it as a page on the Fort Wayne Parks Department's website. But the academy is, in fact, a unique entity not just within the parks department, but within the nation. It's a public-private partnership that everyone in the community can be proud of – and every parent whose children are between 8 and 18 years of age needs to know about it.

LSA was the brainchild of Fort Wayne businessmen Tom Jehl, Doug McKibben and Jerry Fox, secretary treasurer of The Journal Gazette. In the mid-1990s, they began to talk about some of the games that young people like to play, football, and basketball and baseball. Then the idea for LSA grew from something everyone in or headed for middle age is aware of.

“As you get older, your body parts eventually can't take that sort of activity,” Fox said last week. “But with tennis, swimming and golf – you can do those all your life.”

The group came up with a plan to encourage young people to pursue those sports. They made two key decisions early on.

One was to pay staff rather than rely on volunteer work. The other was that the group was determined that everything about the program would be free. The group approached community foundations for support and worked with the parks department and the City Council to upgrade McMillen Park. And one late-spring day in 1998, LSA began its first seven-week season.

That first season, 1,024 kids from all parts of the community registered. Academy participation grew and stabilized – for the last 10 years, the academy has averaged 1,400 to 1,800 registrants per year, and in all, 25,000 children have gone through the program.

They've come from all over the region – being within the age range is the only requirement.

The success of the program is most evident in the many kids who've gone on to play high school or college golf or tennis or competed in the city swim meet. Golfers are urged on by the promise of free clubs and bags and the right to play city courses as they achieve higher levels of proficiency. Tennis players can work toward free equipment also.

“We're particularly proud of the fact that we've taught thousands of kids to swim,” Fox said, noting that it's a safety skill as well as a lifetime sport.

The program gives children from the suburbs and urban neighborhoods a chance to mix. “It's wonderful,” Fox said. “Kids are kids. They relate to everybody.”

And it gives busy parents a safe haven for their children in the midst of summer.

The academy also provides an arts and crafts area for younger children.

Most of all, the LSA staff, several of whom have been a part of the effort from the beginning, teach kids valuable lessons in sportsmanship, honesty and dedication to tasks.

Jehl, who died in 2006, set aside a fund to reimburse the park for academy participants' use, and the University of Saint Francis created a Jehl memorial scholarship that goes to a participant. There is ongoing support from the Auer Foundation.

You'd think the LSA model would have caught on elsewhere. Its founders, in fact, have shared the idea at national public-parks conferences.

“We figured it was a win-win,” Fox said.

But “no other parks department in the country has this program.”

You can help the program by donating unwanted golf clubs or tennis rackets at any parks department location. And if you have children, mark your calendars for next June, when the academy's 18th year will get under way.

Get them over to McMillen Park, and they won't have to listen to you complain about them sitting at the computer all day.