Beyond Sports Foundation (BSF), now in its 12th year, has operated on the belief that that investing in student-athletes from under-served and under-resourced communities will lead to positive social change and create leaders of the future. The Chicago area non-profit does so by helping them to develop the skills needed to attend and thrive in a four-year institution in order to succeed in a world beyond sports.
Last month, BSF invited EcoAthletes Champions Zoe Morse of the Chicago Red Stars and Garry Gilliam, formerly of the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, to speak to the student-athletes. They discussed climate change and how it is impacting their lives now, opportunities for green jobs and more.
Elias Karras is a well-known coach and personal trainer in the Chicago area, having trained many Major League Baseball, NBA and NFL players, including those from under-resourced areas, since the mid-2000s. The University of Illinois Chicago grad couldn’t help but notice that for many of the students he worked with, the college experience was not a realistic goal due to social barriers associated with class and education. In response, he began to bring academic tutors into the gym, to help his charges gain the skills necessary to be able to compete in class, as well as on the field or court at the university level. Other members of his EFT Sports Performance gym took notice and together, they formed the Beyond Sports Foundation as a nonprofit in 2009.
“Our student-athletes come from the Chicagoland area — including Cook, Will, DuPage, Kendall and Lake Counties — who demonstrate an immense need, as well as motivation to succeed,” said Alec Brown, BSF’s executive director. “By building an individualized model for each student-athlete, our foundation is able to help underprivileged kids get into college, by not only helping them to improve academically and athletically, but also by assisting them in the college application process, as well as providing them opportunities for professional development and internship.”
The results — 98 percent of those who complete the Beyond Sports high school program get college scholarships and 88 percent complete a four-year degree program — have been spectacular. According to Brown, this success is largely due to 1-on-1 work with the student-athletes.
“Through multiple performance plan meetings per year our staff is able to assess each individual student biggest needs to ensure that we are able to expand their opportunities for college and even more importantly their ability to make a successful transition to life “beyond sports” whenever their playing career might come to an end,” noted Brown. “Once we are able to get buy-in from our students and their families, we have the curriculum and networks to support all of them. We teach our student-athletes to prepare for the next 40-50 years instead of the next four or five.”
Here are some success stories:
- Nick Turner — With the help of BSF, Turner got an academic scholarship to Valparaiso (Indiana) University, where he also played football, eventually becoming a captain. He went on to get his masters from Valpo and now works at Fortune Brands, a partner of BSF. And Turner gives back to the foundation by mentoring current student-athletes.
Nick Turner shares how Beyond Sports Foundation is helping him prepare for a successful, productive life off the field in this 3 min 34 second video
- Keith Otis and Landon Cox – Per executive director Brown, “Keith and Landon were two of the first student-athletes to become a part of BSF. Both went to Northern Illinois University on football scholarships, with Landon reaching the NFL. Keith is the president of our Jr. Board. He is heavily involved in mentoring and fundraising for us. Landon serves as our Director of Athletics and College Support.”
- Summer Parker-Hall – Parker-Hall, who won the BSF student-athlete of the year award for the class of 2021, will be attending Cornell University as BSF’s first Ivy Leaguer and will play basketball for the Big Red. “Summer attributes her going to Cornell to BSF, although I know most of it is because of who she is,” Brown said. “During the pandemic we were able to expand our college counseling program with additional volunteers to help with virtual support. Summer took full advantage and met with her college counselor multiple times per week to make sure her admission to Cornell was successful.”
BSF’s curriculum is comprehensive, ranging from financial literacy to health and nutrition to ACT/SAT preparation and more. Climate change had not been a part of it.
Until a June webinar about climate change, how it is impacting sports and the job opportunities surrounding climate solutions that will be available to BSF student-athletes, led by EcoAthletes¹. It featured Zoe Morse of the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars and former NFL offensive lineman Garry Gilliam, both climate-active EcoAthletes Champions.
“We’ve made a bigger effort this year to expose our student-athletes to a wide variety of issues facing our communities,” noted Brown. “Climate change exacerbates the severity of many of those issues, from public health to economic health, and more. That’s why having Zoe and Garry talk to our student-athletes about the challenges and especially about green job opportunities was very important. A logical next step is to get our students activity involved in a climate-related service project within the city of Chicago that can show them the difference they can make. Eventually, I would love to see a couple of our student-athletes become EcoAthletes Champions if they develop a passion for the cause.”
Morse, who was not an activist in high school, offered that her passion for climate action led her to start Green Athletics — a sustainability-minded student organization within the University of Virginia athletic department focused on reducing its environmental impact — while playing varsity soccer.
Gilliam, now the CEO of The Bridge Eco-Village — an innovative mixed-use real estate development being piloted in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that aims to replace systemic oppression and racism with systemic equity by providing places for marginalized people to “live, work, eat, learn and play” — shared that his journey to environmental sustainability and climate came was jump-started by his switch to a plant-based diet. This is not common for a 300+ pound NFL offensive lineman but Gilliam saw health and athletic performance benefits from going plant-based. He also made the connection between poor eating habits and poor health outcomes, especially when it comes to the African-American population. And he also learned that industrial meat production is a major contributor to climate change-causing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
A sampling of the comments from some of the attendees, both student-athletes and parents, indicates that Morse’s and Gilliam’s stories hit home.
“The EcoAthletes workshop taught me more about sustainability and climate change,” said Brealyn Viamille, a 12th grade soccer player at Evanston Township HS. “It also gave me a sense about, how as a student-athlete, I can use my platform to show people how economic, social and environmental justice are all connected.”
“Evidence has shown that the black community is negatively impacted at higher rates when it comes to environmental issues,” BSF parent Jennifer Chambers offered. “That’s why I — and I expect our student-athletes — are inspired by Gary Gilliam’s call to action to get involved.”
¹ Editor’s Note: GreenSportsBlog’s Lew Blaustein is also the founder and President of EcoAthletes, a non-profit dedicated to “inspiring and coaching athletes to lead climate action.”
Photo at top: Student-athletes from the Beyond Sports Foundation (Photo credit: Beyond Sports Foundation)
GSB’s Take: Making climate change an integral part of K-12 curricula, is a must if we’re going to have a chance to develop the will to make the changes necessary.
Kudos to the Beyond Sports Foundation for adding climate into its curriculum for under-resourced Chicago-area student-athletes. Their neighborhoods are feeling the harshest impacts of climate change and their families are least able to adapt. On the flip side, they have a great opportunity to benefit from the myriad of climate solutions that are and will become available, including green jobs.
The webinar with pro athletes Zoe Morse and Garry Gilliam was a good start. We look forward to seeing where BSF takes it from here.