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Girls Play Sports program has high school girls paying it forward

When Chris Livatino’s sixth-grade daughter asked to play soccer during recess with the boys, she was served with denial when she dared to participate in the boys’ realm of sports.

After Livatino’s daughter informed him of this experience, he was instantly enraged, but out of that anger an idea sparked that would spur the development of young women’s lives.

Livatino is the athletic director at Evanston Township High School. In his first four years on the job, girls’ participation numbers in sports dropped considerably.

He had to turn things around.

“That talk with my daughter not only angered me but made me realize that we need to find a place for girls to feel comfortable about being athletes. Numbers were plummeting for girls’ participation in sports and they were beginning to withdraw at the sixth-grade level. So, I wanted to come up with a program to attract girls to play sports at the elementary school level, which is when they’re introduced to athletics. The day after talking to my daughter I went to the girls’ head basketball coach and strategized to create a program called Girls Play Sports. That’s where it was born,” Livatino said.

But being an athletic director can be time consuming. He needed help and for someone else to do the legwork. Liz Brieva, a stay-at-home mom with a girl in high school and middle school in the district wanted to help make a difference.

“Chris had a great idea but didn’t have enough time to put it into motion,” Brevia said. “I’m a stay-at-home mom, I love sports and I love Evanston. I love my kids and wanted to make sure other girls tried sports in the community.”

The idea was to have juniors and seniors playing high school sports go to elementary schools after school hours once a month for three hours and teach girls how to play sports.

The ball got rolling and Livatino was appreciative of Brieva’s help.

“If she didn’t get involved it would have been another idea we did in a haphazard way. She called principals at every elementary school in the district and we got six to participate that first year. There were a lot of programs out there for boys and just not enough for girls. We got 20 elementary school girls in the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade to participate at every school and five players from the lacrosse and basketball team to teach them how to play sports once a month. The goal was to introduce girls to sports about making them feel proud and excited about being an athlete,” Livatino said.

But the program was more than just teaching kids sports. It was about giving young girls role models. It was also about having a young girl develop a relationship with someone older. Perhaps this same person didn’t want to try out for a sport because she thought she wasn’t good enough, or wasn’t allowed to play with the boys at recess, and needed an outlet.

“We wanted to have our high school girls serve as role models to the younger girls. So, we came up with the idea that it would be great if they could get a full 30-minute lesson and that’s what led to on-site clinics the following months. We had 150 fifth graders come to Evanston Township and they all had lunch together. We separated them from their friends so they could meet other girls. Then we had three or four elementary girls at a time sit down with our seniors and just talk about sports and what obstacles they’ve encountered and how to get past them,” Livatino said.

That close interaction was the foundation for success, and Brieva saw it working first-hand.

“We began to see the high school girls taking on leadership roles,” Brevia said. “To see the younger kids look up to them with their big eyes and excitement about learning sports, and having someone to talk to about their experiences, it just came full circle.”

Three years later, the program has definitely come full circle and the numbers prove it. Girls participation in sports at Evanston Township has risen an astounding 21 percent. The program has also expanded to three more elementary schools to a total of nine, comprising of 150 girls.

Another high school caught wind of the success of the program.

John Catalano, AD at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, noticed inconsistent numbers in girls’ participation in sports. Six months ago at a high school district athletic directors meeting Livatino told him about his program working, Catalano wanted to give it a whirl.

“We were seeing inconsistent numbers in our girls sports programs, going up and down like a yo-yo all across the board. I wanted to be proactive about this, so we reached out to our feeder junior high schools, four private schools and three public schools to get them to feel more welcome, and at the same time have them feel okay about trying out for a competitive sport,” Catalano said.

The juniors and seniors at Glenbrook North want to be role models for young girls and reverse the trend of low participation numbers of girls in sports.

Maggie Harris, a junior at Glenbrook North, said, “I’ve noticed we’re kind of getting less numbers for girls sports in general and we decided this would be a good way to strengthen the numbers throughout the board in all sports. I think it’s important to keep the girls involved in sports and be busy. And we thought that doing this with the younger girls would help get them involved in sports and not be afraid to try out for that sport in high school they are not so sure about. I feel like a mentor. My friend didn’t make a team at our school, but made another and is loving it, so having other girls in our high school see us do this makes them want to play sports and maybe try something new, or find a new passion.”

Glenbrook North has tweaked the program a bit, doing the program twice a year, each time being a three-hour session. Also the program is for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. At the one this semester there were five different sports stations that rotated every 30 minutes. The five juniors and seniors from five different sports taught 70 young girls how to play sports and the fundamentals. The junior high girls were engaged, smiling and having fun. At the conclusion of the night a 30-minute video showcased all the women’s sports at Glenbrook North. You could see the gleam in the young girls eyes aspiring to one day be like them.

“I think it’s good to see the Glenbrook North students and ask them how sports and life will be like in high school. It looks like they’re having a lot of fun, and makes us want to play sports and encourages us. It’s a good bonding experience,” said Hannah Whitlock, a sixth-grader at Northbrook Junior High.

Glenbrook North has had strong athletic program decades, especially in basketball, having gone to multiple elite eights. But they’re not looking for the next female version of Chris Collins or Jon Scheyer – both alums – or better the success of their teams.

“The whole idea was whether they are good athletes or average athletes or maybe someone that just wants to try something. It isn’t as much about skill building as much as its about making sure that they are feeling welcome and invited to try out for a team and that its OK to try out and some of our sports are very competitive and some cut and some aren’t. But it’s still OK to try it. Some of the girls in there demonstrating to the kids have been cut in some sports but have found their niche in other sports and I guess that’s the idea. If it doesn’t work well maybe there’s something else you find yourself interested in. And to go for that, that’s the end goal. I’m not worried about how skilled or how good they are,” Catalano said.

Evanston Township has had a winning girls’ basketball team as well, going to the elite eight last year. Most of the girls on the team are African-American in a predominantly Caucasian town. The common perception among girls in the high school and elementary school is that that can’t make the team and that’s not “their” sport.

“We’re just trying to expose these kids to all these kinds of sports. Sports programs here at the high school at least are pretty well racially stereotyped. We don’t have a lot of diversity in our sports programs here. One of my theories is that kids aren’t exposed to a wide range of sports early enough before they have this preconceived notion of what is ‘their’ sport. So, my hope is that white, black and Hispanic girls are exposed to a wide variety of sports so they can make their mind up as to what sports they see themselves playing. And that might get them over that racial stereotype when they’re in sixth, seventh and eighth grade,” Livatino said.

Livatino knows it’s important for all girls playing sports in the high school to get involved, not just the stars or the players on the successful teams.

“I like the emphasis that we’ve placed on the importance of female participation in sports. This has given the girls involved in the program that extra sense of buzz of being involved and it’s spread to other girls playing sports too. We’ve done a good job of letting them know we’re proud of their efforts,” Livatino said.

Passing on this tradition is important. Livatino hopes the girls who went through the program will remember the impact it had on them and pay it forward. But the caring Livatino wants the program to spread to schools all over and make a difference in other communities.

“The group that started will be freshmen next year, we had 100 kids that year. I hope it’s helped them along the way to get over a hump. We hope that it can catch on with schools around the state. That would be a wonderful legacy for the program, to be the group that helped other people figure out what they want to do. And it’s a simple thing.  It’s not like this is rocket science. But when you think about the overall job of a high school athletic department, you don’t think of doing things like this, because it’s not your job,” Livatino said.

It may not be your job to change someone’s life, but even the smallest of ideas or time you give to something you care about can make a lasting impact.

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