When Joe Baker and a group of his friends founded PlaySmart in 1997, they based the non-profit organization on a premise that, at the time, was more of an innate belief than empirical fact. The last decade and a half have since provided all the evidence the altruistic buddies could ever need that their premise was correct.
"It started out with this intuitive idea that sports are good for kids," said Baker. "When we started PlaySmart, we weren't social directors. None of us had done any in-depth research on our mission. We just knew sports was good for kids. That's what we knew.
"Now, 15 years later, it's documented. Sports is good for kids. Sports builds self-esteem. It gives [kids] courage to do the right thing."
Fifteen years ago, Baker, a Princeton grad, was the assistant special teams coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Now he's the linebackers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and PlaySmart is still going strong. On Friday, one of the organization's signature programs, a two-week Summer Sports Camp, came to Baker's current place of work for an afternoon that its 75 participants won't soon forget.
Since obtaining its 501(c)(3) status in 1999, PlaySmart has expanded across much of the United States, with programs in places such as Baltimore, Maryland; Fort Worth, Texas; Omaha, Nebraska and Irvington, New Jersey. Obviously, the organization is very active in the Bay area, which now serves as its headquarters. This summer, it partnered with Blake High School to conduct its comprehensive Summer Sports Camp, all in support of PlaySmart's mission: to help kids reach their academic and life potential through sports.
"Our mission for the camps is to provide multi-sport/academic/learn-to-swim program for kids to participate in in order to help promote academics and their overall life skills," said PlaySmart's Director of Programs, Ellen Grosso, who was in from her hometown of Denver to help run the camp in Tampa. "If the sports part of it is what the kids are trying to achieve, we hope we can help instill that here, but overall we're just trying to help them with academics and their life skills. We think giving them an opportunity to play sports will really help."
The Tampa camp targeted middle school children, and Blake High School not only served as the host but also helped PlaySmart locate the type of kids they were hoping to reach. PlaySmart directors believe middle-schoolers are at a stage in their life development in which they experience rapid change associated with development, establish autonomy from their parents, explore their identities and establish social behaviors, good or bad. Children in inner-city and rural areas are often targeted for the PlaySmart camps and other programs because they have the least opportunity to participate in sport-based programs due to socioeconomic difficulties. Qualifying students were able to join the program tuition-free.
Grosso said the organization is also determined to reach both boys and girls, and indeed the group that visited One Buccaneer Place on Friday included roughly 25 female participants.
Baker, obviously, arranged for the trip to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' headquarters and also was instrumental in lining up partners to provide food and transportation. Blake High School provided much of the camp's staffing, from members of the school's athletic coaching staffs to recent graduates to current students.
Over the course of the two-week camp, the participants receive training and are able to compete in four sports: flag football, basketball, soccer and volleyball. The camp also has a new emphasis on swimming instructions, less as a matter of sports competition than simple safety. Baker was motivated to add this to the program during his tenure as an assistant coach with the New Orleans Saints (2001-04), during which he heard stories every year about kids drowning in the bayou.
A typical day during the two-week camp includes breakfast, instruction on the current sport in the morning, lunch, games in the afternoon, a guest speaker, a trip to the YMCA for swimming instruction and a "Pillar of the Day" exercise. During the daily time at the YMCA, another organization PlaySmart was fortunate to partner with, the children are separated into groups based on their level of comfort in the water so that none of the participants becomes intimidated by the lessons.
Of course, Friday wasn't a typical camp day, thanks to Baker's Buccaneer connection. To cap the first week of the camp, during which the participants focused on football and basketball, the entire group spent part of the morning and much of the afternoon at One Buccaneer Place.
The program began with a presentation by Buccaneers Director of Player Programs Eric Vance in the team auditorium. Sitting in the same seats that Tampa Bay players occupy during a normal work day, the campers enjoyed prepared videos, answered questions about their camp experience and took part in an interesting role-playing exchange. Vance called several students up to the stage to stand at a podium and conduct a press conference based on a potential achievement in their lives. For instance, in one scenario, a girl camper fielded questions about the business she had just started after graduating from college, while another one spoke as if she had just finished competing on the Olympic volleyball team.
The campers then enjoyed lunch in the One Buccaneer Place dining room and then headed out to the practice field for their games. After a skills competition that included distance throws, the boys and girls split up into teams based on age and gender and then squared off in a series of quick flag football games. Tours of the Buccaneers' state-of-the-art facility were also provided.
"This is a great experience," said Grosso. "Anything in the community where the camp is taking place that involves a sports partner, whether it's professional or college – even high school – it's wonderful when they can buy in to our mission and get involved with the community. We're fortunate that Joe is with the Buccaneers. We have board members all over the country that aren't involved with the NFL but they have other organizations and partners getting involved with us to really fulfill our mission."
Next week, the campers will focus on soccer and volleyball and then conclude the program with a similar trip to the athletic facilities at the nearby University of South Florida. Grosso explained that the PlaySmart summer camps always try to incorporate field trips to locations where sports are played and teams operate, so that the campers can get a look at locker rooms and meeting rooms and such. The goal is always to teach life lessons, through sports, and places such as One Buccaneer Place show the children how sports and life intersect.
PlaySmart has come a long way since it was the brainchild of a group of buddies playing basketball on nine-foot rims as an annual reunion. Baker said the organization sprang from the friends' shared desire to take some of what sports had given them in their lives and help others reap the same benefits.
Said Baker: "Eventually we said, 'Hey you know what? We all got a lot out of athletics. Let's try to give something back."