Though town-gown relations have often been strained in New Haven, there is one department at Yale that has always succeeded in fostering a strong relationship with the city community: sports.

Through activities such as Youth Days and summer sports camps, Yale athletes make an impact on the Elm City’s children.

Youth Days, which are held early in the fall and spring seasons, draw large crowds of young New Havenites who come out to play with and learn from the Elis. Many sports teams set up stations to either teach their sport or to simply play with the kids. The fall Youth Day will be held Oct. 2 this year.

“Basically Youth Day is a combination of several events,” Don Scharf ’57, chairman of event, said. “There are two big ones — one in the fall and one in the spring. We invite about 350-400 inner-city kids to come to clinics, and we bus them in. We have probably 100-plus Yale athletes conducting clinics. We also have climbing walls and other types of things for the kids to amuse themselves.”

Scharf said the importance of Youth Day extends well beyond cementing a stronger bond between the city and the University.

“It really helps the kids in New Haven to become interested in education,” he said. “They also pick role models. They get to know these athletes, and it gives them the opportunity to have someone to look up to.”

Yale athletes have similar sentiments about the importance of Youth Day.

“I think that [Youth Day] allows us to have a good presence in the community and allows the town of New Haven to identify us as something else besides just Yale students,” men’s lacrosse player Dave Levy ’07 said. “It’s good to get out there and do something for other people.”

Levy and his teammates chose not to teach lacrosse to the participants in Youth Day, choosing instead to play touch football with the children.

“It was a ton of fun,” Levy said. “There were a lot of New Haven kids, and a lot of them were cocky kids. They were funny — really competitive, playful trash talking.”

Other teams opted to set up mini-clinics. The men’s and women’s basketball teams, for example, erected stations and helped kids fine-tune different hoops skills. Some stations had one-on-one games, with young New Havenites going head-to-head with Yale varsity players. Other stations had kids shooting around, playing variations of horse.

“We weren’t forced at all [to participate in Youth Day],” women’s basketball center Erica Davis ’07 said. “We wanted to do this as a team and it’s definitely almost a tradition for our teams to go out and do this. It’s part of the way we help open football season and open our season, and it’s a good bonding experience — not just for us as a team but for us with the kids. It’s definitely fun to be out there interacting with them.”

Besides having fun, Davis said Youth Day has a farther reaching, more important impact.

“I think it showed [the kids] an alternative to other things they could spend their time doing,” Davis said. “A lot of excuses kids may have for why they aren’t more active are that they aren’t given the opportunity to get out and play and to go out and learn a sport. But [Youth Day] gave them a way to say, ‘Hey, I’ve never seen that sport and now that I’ve seen it, it may be something I’d like to look into later.’ We showed them that exercise isn’t a chore.”

Megan Quintana ’06, co-captain of the cheerleading squad who has participated in Youth Day, said she felt similarly.

“Athleticism is very important in order to stay fit and have a healthy body,” she said. “Often kids in urban communities don’t get as much health and nutrition information as they need, so by promoting athleticism we show them that fitness is fun and something they need to do.”

Quintana and her squad has volunteered at the Hill Coop by helping out with playtimes and helped host youth community clinics to teach cheer to kids and promote the athletic image of cheerleading.

Over the summer, both Yale and New Haven focused on promoting athleticism. On July 6, New Haven hosted the third annual Pilot Pen Tennis Street Clinic featuring 17-year old Maria Sharapova, who had won Wimbeldon just three days before. The event, which was conducted by USA Tennis New England, gave children from the New Haven Parks and Recreation Summer Camps a brief introduction to tennis and was followed by a “celebrity challenge.”

“The Street Clinic is a special way for me to connect with youngsters in New Haven,” Sharapova told the Associated Press. “My parents and I came to this country when I was six-years-old. They didn’t speak English and didn’t have any money. But they worked hard and instilled values in me that I want to help pass on to these kids. If we can make it, so can they.”

While Church Street in front of City Hall turned into a make-shift tennis court for a day, the Yale Summer Sports Programs introduced city children to sports they may never have dreamt of trying, such as rowing and fencing. Roughly 350 New Haven kids participated in the free camp, which is part of the National Youth Sports Programs and run by Gregory Brinn, Coordinator of Community Outreach in Athletics.

“Years ago, Yale was perceived as a place that was closed off to the rest of the community,” director of sports publicity Steve Conn said. “But [Director of Athletics] Tom Beckett has been so great about community outreach — he’s the one that deserves all the credit. He’s helped to change Yale’s image in the community.”

While the influence of Yale athletes may not have a profound effect on every New Havenite who participates in Youth Day, and Yale cannot change the way that all kids perceive sports, the University’s participation in encouraging athleticism in the community is nonetheless substantial and influential.

“It reminds you that you really are a role model, and as long as you keep on smiling and cheering, you can potentially inspire someone,” cheerleading co-captain Christie Yang ’05 said.

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