A group of pre-teens wearing colorful socks and crazy hats took to a softball diamond at the University of Toledo Wednesday afternoon.
A girl wearing a giant Toledo Walleye hockey-puck hat lingered by the pitcher. A boy who came up to bat sported one blue tie-dyed sock.
"It's Crazy Hat and Sock Day," explained National Youth Sports Program staff member Ashley Hernandez, who donned a Mickey Mouse hat for the occasion.
The national program aimed at economically disadvantaged children has been a summer staple at UT since 1968. It focuses on sports, featuring daily activities such as soccer, swimming, and track.
UT also sets aside time for nutrition education and recreational therapy, which can involve arts and crafts, music, and dancing.
For Daryll Michael Alexander, Jr., of Toledo the program offers so many exciting opportunities that he said his favorite activity was "all of them."
"I like doing all the sports they have, and it's very fun," the 10-year-old said. "I can make friends and have fun with people I didn't know before."
The program, that began June 11 and ends June 28, welcomed about 125 youths ages 10 to 16, program administrator Dr. Ruthie Kucharewski said.
It is run by a staff made up of Toledo public school system employees, UT undergraduate and graduate health-care students, and UT student athletes.
"We have a lot of people returning," Dr. Kucharewski said. "They absolutely love working with the kids."
Ms. Hernandez, who will be a senior in UT's recreational therapy program in the fall, is working at the camp as part of her pediatric clinical. "I had never heard of NYSP before our professor brought it up in class," she said. "I was really excited to be a part of it."
Despite the staff's enthusiasm, it has not always been certain whether the camp would return each summer. In 2006, Congress eliminated funding for the project, leading most of the 200 nationwide programs to close their doors.
Dr. Kucharewski said the local program has been able to stay open with help from the community and the University of Toledo.
"We have very strong administrative support because we're an urban campus, and the program aligns with our mission as a university," she said. "A lot of faculty and staff will sponsor a child for camp, administrators too."
UT's program is one of 31 left in the country, although the federal funding cut has led to reductions in its numbers of participants and staff as well as its duration.
Dr. Kucharewski said one reason the area has worked so hard to keep the program running is because of its past achievements.
The university won the Silvio O. Conte Award of Excellence from the NYSP national headquarters in 2003 and 2004, naming it the best program in the country.
"We have quality programming," Dr. Kucharewski said. "We teach them lifetime leisure skills, peer refusal skills, conflict management skills, and respect."
UT also has won awards from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its lunch program, and from the Ohio Parks and Recreation Association for youth programming.
Dr. Kucharewski said this type of program plays a vital role in Toledo where there are limited recreational activities and often limited adult supervision for children.
"They're able to be active and be involved in constructive leisure activities," she said.
"They're around adults that care about them. They nurture them, help them grow, and are good role models."
Contact Mel Flanagan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6087.