Flint, MI—Fans cheered from the bleachers at Potter Elementary as Flint’s young athletes sent volleyballs soaring during a night of Crim Fitness Foundation youth volleyball league play on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023.
But volleyball is just one of the sports Crim offers. Since 2014, the organization has nurtured a partnership with the Flint Community Schools (FCS) district. Now the Crim hosts a team sports league with two to three sports per season for nine middle and elementary schools throughout the FCS school system.
For the 2022 to 2023 school year, about 750 student athletes are playing in the league so far, said Chris Collins, Crim Sports program director. That’s on track to surpass last year, he added, which saw about 1,000 student athletes year-round.
Crim does its own fundraising and hires its own staff to coach sports and support other extracurricular activities schools may want to try out, said Collins.
Collins noted that Crim is branching out this year, as well, offering wrestling in the spring, tennis clinics, tournaments and family events that together help create year-round athletic programming for Flint kids.
On top of that, Collins said Crim’s youth sports program is seeing more girls participate this year. Midway through this academic year, girls make up more than half of the program’s participants. In the 2021-2022 school year, girls made up a little over a third of the program’s participants.
Nyiasiah Jackson, a fifth grade scholar on Brownell STEM Academy’s volleyball team, said she’s competing to carry on the torch for both her school and her grandmother. Brownell’s Crim league teams have a winning reputation to uphold, she said, and her grandmother, who has since passed away, played volleyball in her youth.
“I find it calming,” she said.
Making sports more inclusive was intentional, Collins said. For one, Crim shifted its schedules around, putting basketball in the fall and volleyball in the winter. That way, girls in the basketball program, a sport that Collins said typically gets a lot of attention and excitement, can also try out a different sport like volleyball without scheduling conflicts.
Crim also moved volleyball games from weekends to weekday evenings so the organization could work with schools to set up after-school transportation and make it easier on working parents.
While Crim didn’t have enough players for a complete volleyball season last year, Collins said the league has 10 volleyball teams this year.
“Historically, it hasn’t been comparable experiences like that or opportunities like that for women and girls,” Collins said. “I have two daughters at home, so I want to make sure they have every single opportunity, equitably, that’s available to them.”
Aniyla Green, who plays for Brownell STEM Academy, started in Crim’s volleyball program last school year, she said. On top of basketball, volleyball and sometimes football with her uncles and brothers, the fourth-grader said she’s taking boxing lessons, “so I could be the next Claressa Shields.”
“Every girl could play sports,” Aniyla said. “Anything boys could do, girls could do, too. And no boy could stop that. Girls could play basketball if they want to, or boys could play volleyball if they want to. Every sport is for any gender.”
Although Collins didn’t play organized sports until he was in sixth grade, he said he sees a deeper value in youth athletics now through his work with the Crim Fitness Foundation. Not only can youth sports help kids develop lifelong healthy habits, he said, it can also help show them how to overcome adversity and build resilience.
“If you know anything about [volleyball], it could be a bit challenging and intimidating just to get the ball across the net,” he said. “So really just being able to have the confidence to try and come up short, you know, go through all those different emotions that can happen in the midst of a competition … Things don’t always go our way. No matter how good of a foot we think we’re putting forward, it just doesn’t always happen. But it’s important to still continue striving for what you believe in.”