BAWSI: The fitness posse

Jovana Ortiz gives her son Henry Mercado, 4, a ride as she does

In a time riddled with budget cuts threatening to bench
elementary physical education altogether, one nonprofit
after-school sports program is scoring big in Gilroy schools. Full
Police briefs: Date steals credit card info
In a time riddled with budget cuts threatening to bench elementary physical education altogether, one nonprofit after-school sports program is scoring big in Gilroy schools.

The Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative connects female student-athletes from local high schools and colleges with second- through fifth-grade girls, instilling confidence, self-esteem and a love of exercise. After successful implementation in 2008 and three years of registration lists filled to capacity, Gilroy Unified School District officials are starry-eyed over the program provided at zero cost to Title I elementary schools, which serve mainly low-income and disadvantaged populations.

“This has really surpassed our expectations,” said GUSD Board President Rhoda Bress. “It’s really difficult in these times not to be focused on those high-stakes testing – but we really believe in education for the whole student, and BAWSI has enabled us to do that in the current climate.”

Since its launch in Gilroy, BAWSI Girls has catered to more than 1,300 girls at Eliot, Rod Kelley, El Roble and Glen View elementary schools. Its sister program Salud por Vida – an exercise regimen open to mothers and other women – has served 175 Gilroy participants.

“They’re not just getting in shape,” says BAWSI Chief Executive Officer Marlene Bjornsrud, former general manager of the San Jose CyberRays women’s professional soccer team. “We’re also seeing a sense of empowerment. It’s grown. It’s contagious. Women are feeling power and confidence.”

Of five Bay Area cities taking advantage of the program, Gilroy’s turnout is consistently the largest, says Chief Operating Officer Laura Myers. Popularity is such that registration for BAWSI Girls in Gilroy often exceeds program capacity for the 75 minutes-a-week, eight-week course that occurs twice a year in fall and spring. Five employees work out of BAWSI’s home office in San Jose, and 15 to 20 employees work part-time for the nonprofit funded by the state, and corporate and private donors.

Bjornsrud, along with Olympic and World Cup soccer stars Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy, founded BAWSI in 2005 to foster physical activity through appealing, fitness-based games all girls can participate in, such as tag, jump rope or hula-hoop.

Mentoring and support is entwined in the structure of BAWSI, doled out in locker room-style pep talks by Gavilan College, Gilroy and Christopher High School athletes. They act as role models, exemplifying the results of positive decision-making.

“I did it the first year they had it. I loved coaching it,” said 2011 GHS graduate Dani Hemeon, a decorated sports buff headed to the University of Iowa this fall.

Hemeon highlights the all-female organization as giving “girls a way to play at school where they didn’t have to try and fit in with the boys.”

For young ladies who haven’t experienced team camaraderie, Program Director Susan Armenta says a direct connection to older athletes jump-starts higher aspirations in young students.

“Just by getting girls moving, every body of research shows that she’ll stay in school, do better and have a lesser chance of getting pregnant or joining a gang,” she says. “It’s something that could change the trajectory of the life of a little girl.”

Engaging local athletes from the surrounding area imparts a sense of community ownership, Bjornsrud added. Rather than facilitating everything remotely from the San Jose headquarters, “the meat of the work is happening right there in Gilroy, with Gilroy athletes.”

Gavilan softball coach Nikki Dequin, whose players have volunteered every year, says benefits go both ways.

“The response has been great,” she said. “When the little girls come to games, they’re excited and really happy, and you know we’ve made an impact because they remember who you are.”

Athletes volunteer for one hour a day, once a week.

Salud por Vida, BAWSI’s sister program, aims to break the cycle of poor health by starting with the parents.

Like BAWSI Girls, Salud por Vida is a shining demonstration of the organization’s homegrown aptitude for honing in on an area of need, then formulating a comprehensive fitness package conducive to a target audience. Salud por Vida meets weekly at the playground in El Roble Park, offers participants coaching in Spanish and English and focuses on realistic ways to abandon sedentary lifestyles, increase self-confidence and combat health risks such as obesity or diabetes.

Jovana Ortiz, a 27-year-old Salud por Vida regular, says she enjoys the option of working out alongside her children, 4-year-old Henry Mercado and 2-year-old Emily Mercado.

When Salud por Vida met on a sunny Monday afternoon, Emily busied herself pouring small handfuls of sand on her mother’s feet while Ortiz did triceps pulls alongside her workout companions.

“I like that it’s outside, and I like that I can bring my kids here to play,” said Ortiz.

Having received “extremely positive” feedback from parents and principals, GUSD Superintendent Debbie Flores wants BAWSI Girls to permeate every elementary school in Gilroy.

While BAWSI has been offered at Eliot, El Roble, Glen View and Rod Kelley sites in the past, locations for the 2011-2012 school year have yet to be determined.

The primary roadblock, Flores said, is recruiting enough female athletes to go around – although the district’s recent implementation of a community service graduation requirement may encourage a larger turnout this school year.

Myers agreed; manpower – or, more appropriately – womanpower – is the main obstacle.

While it takes $14,500 to fund BAWSI at one school site, she says a combination of ongoing grants from the city of San Jose, individual and corporate donors keep the possibility of expansion in Gilroy open.

“Female athletes have great capacity to give back in their communities,” says Bjornsrud. “All BAWSI is trying to do is give them a platform to do that in a way that’s very natural for them.”

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