On a windy fall afternoon, dozens of children ran, shouting and laughing, across the lawn at Westview Elementary School, enjoying an exuberant game of tag.
The kids had been separated into groups labeled Jeeps, Cadillacs and Corvettes by physical education teacher and cross country coach Sam Compogno.
“Car lot!” he yelled, meaning everyone was “It.”
However, one little girl had already forgotten the rules. She looked up at her teacher. “Mr. C. what’s car lot?” she asked.
What looked like after-school play time was actually training for the first elementary cross country meet of the season. “We want to make it fun for them,” said Compogno. “I’m into tricking them into enjoying running.”
It doesn’t take much trickery. Many children are born to run, and thanks to a local nonprofit organization, Active4Youth, Spokane-area elementary students once again have the opportunity to participate in cross country.
Several years ago the sport fell victim to district budget cuts that eliminated elementary after-school sports programs. As local attorney Mike Bresson watched these programs disappear, he wondered, “What’s going to happen with all these kids?”
His wife is an elementary P.E. teacher, and he was aware of the alarming nationwide statistics regarding childhood obesity. In addition, he said, “There’s 34 elementary schools in the district, and 26 or 27 of them are Title One schools, meaning they receive federal funds for free/reduced priced lunches.” Bresson knew many families simply couldn’t afford the fees involved with community-based sports programs.
So the former collegiate soccer player-turned-runner got busy. Bresson founded Active4Youth with the goal of bringing back after-school sports for elementary students. He focused on cross country because no other activity can incorporate so many children. Plus there are no equipment fees. Thanks to funding from the Inland Northwest Community Foundation, Charlotte Martin Foundation and a partnership with Spokane Public Schools, thousands of Spokane-area children are experiencing the thrill of competitive running at no cost.
The organization got a boost when the Lilac Bloomsday Association agreed to sponsor the upcoming All-City Cross Country Meet. In a press release, Bloomsday race director Don Kardong said, “Bloomsday is really pleased to support this program. This is a wonderful opportunity for kids in Spokane to get in shape and learn about distance running.”
Peter Ellis, fitness and health coordinator for Spokane Public Schools, is delighted the program has come back. “It’s a great way to promote school spirit and to incorporate our fitness and health curriculum,” he said. “Running is a lifetime activity.” The program’s return has prompted huge interest throughout the district. According to Ellis, Roosevelt Elementary School had 143 kids turn out.
Bresson points out the skills kids learn in cross country will translate into many other sports like basketball, football or soccer.
In addition, Ellis said, “The kids really do enjoy it. “That enjoyment was evident at the recent Westview practice.
“I love running!” 9-year-old Kelcie Johnson enthused. But she offered this disclaimer: “When I did the walk/jog/run in P.E. I couldn’t feel my legs.”
For some participants the mile-long course isn’t long enough. Five-year-old kindergartner Emma Summers shivered in the brisk wind. Through chattering teeth she said, “I like to run for a long, long time. It’s like, fun!”
Parent volunteer Nicole Lund said of cross country, “I’m so glad it’s back in schools. I have five kids and this gives them each a chance to go out and compete.”
Volunteers like Lund have been essential, said Ellis. “We have about 50 parent volunteers assisting with the coaching at schools across the district, which is a huge help,” he said.
Compogno believes no one could be happier than himself about the return of cross country running. He’s taught P.E., health and fitness for 36 years, and he mourned the loss of elementary after-school sports. As he watched the kids chase each other across the schoolyard, he said, “Movement is great for connecting the synapses in the brain.” Moments later, with breathless students clustered around him, he added, “I love running – it’s so great for fitness.”