Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.
By SUSAN McMAHON
LOWELL Inside the UMass Lowell swimming pool, a gaggle of children grasp for a volleyball and clamor over each other, trying to toss it into a net.
On the other side of the water, another student hops, jumping-jack style, off the diving board, landing in the pool with a loud splash.
The lazy days of summer? Not for these kids.
They are participating in the National Youth Sports Program, an initiative that aims to help inner-city children discover new activities during the summer months.
The 5 1/2 -week program incorporates tennis, basketball, soccer, swimming, golf, crew, math, science and various field trips into a mish-mash of daily activities running from the morning to early afternoon.
The goal: to expose children to new sports and interests. But there's another added benefit students also learn to get along with a variety of other kids, people they may not have met otherwise.
"We tell the kids, 'You're going to run through a lot of activities. Maybe there's some in there you'll have a lifelong relationship with,'" said Ed Scollan, director of the program at UMass Lowell. "We try to get the kids to get along, to respect each other."
This year's crop of students is larger than ever. Drawn from the neighborhoods of Lowell, about 500 students signed up for the program. On a daily basis, over 325 show up for the activities.
Getting large numbers of students to wake up for the bus before the 7 a.m. breakfast is an impressive feat.
"It's not required. It's voluntary. And they're here," Scollan said.
It's also free, with bus transportation, breakfast and lunch all included. And offering a cost-free alternative to a summer of watching television is an opportunity many Lowell students find hard to pass up.
"It's better than doing nothing during the summer," said 13-year-old Lauren Lasniak, a three-year veteran of the program.
The program has been at UMass Lowell for 11 years, but has been in existence nationally for over 30 years.
Its success in the city can be seen in its retention rates. This year, close to 50 percent of the summer participants returned from last year.
"I do see a lot of kids who have a good experience, and want the camp to go on for more than 5 1/2 weeks," Scollan said.
Chris Khadij is one of those kids. The Lowell student has been coming to the program for the past five years.
"I think it's good for me," said the 16-year-old. "Not only to keep me busy, but it's fun to come back."
Thirteen-year-old Philippe Candido, attending the program for the first year, is sure he'll be coming back.
"It's in the summer. It's sports. It's nice to do," he said. "You meet new friends, meet new people, have new experiences. It's fun."