When 14-year-old Danae Austin showed up at Phil Willenbrock's office, she had a problem. Budget cuts forced the Highline School District to eliminate late bus service, and her family couldn't afford to pay for public transportation. Austin would have to quit the soccer team.
Thankfully, Willenbrock, the district's athletic director, had another option. He got some help from a grassroots group Sports in Schools, and was able to offer some money to pay for Austin's bus pass so she could stay on the team.
"You have the haves and the have nots," says Sports in Schools founder Will Niccols. The longtime soccer referee created the local organization after seeing firsthand the impact of budget cuts on many middle and high schools around the area. Shrinking budgets mean activity fees have skyrocketed, leaving more kids unable to afford to play.
"The rich kids aren't impacted. It's going to be the poverty impact neighborhoods, the communities where we already spend a lot of resources," says Niccols.
Seattle Schools charge $100 per sport, while the fees range from $75 in Renton to $275 in the Lake Washington District.
Niccols argues while the issue of paying to play is about social justice, it's also a public health issue. "The social worker (and) the community service folks are going to see an increase in what they have to do to take care of unhealthy, obese kids."
While Sports in Schools focuses on helping middle and high school sports programs, the funding shortfalls for fitness are being felt in cash-strapped elementary schools that are forced to cut PE classes and after school offerings.
"We've seen a number of the studies about the rise of childhood obesity and the problem that presents for the health of our country and the cost of our health care, but also physical fitness has now been directly tied to academic performance," says Rep. Adam Smith.
Smith is backing a new effort to guarantee federal education funds to states and districts to specifically protect physical education programs. He says even though money is tight and Congress is divided, it's a critical issue.
"I think it is important, at a minimum, that we have a national dialogue to emphasize the importance of physical fitness in K-12 education," says Smith.
Niccols couldn't agree more. He argues athletics are often the only thing keeping kids, who would otherwise turn to gangs, drugs, or crime, in schools.
"It's about giving them self esteem," Niccols says, "Giving them a positive self image, giving them options to gang violence, giving them options to the plethora of bad things that can go on during after school hours."
Niccols can't do it without money. Sports in Schools is an entirely volunteer, donation-based organization that leaves spending decisions up to individual coaches and athletic directors on a case by case basis to fund everything from shoes to emergency dental care.
"We try to get them the support they need to be successful because these coaches, these athletic directors are absolutely the best champions these students can have."
Bonneville, The Seattle Seahawks and Les Schwab Tire are proud to honor Sports in Schools as the January Charity of the Month for its work in promoting equality in youth sports.