Breaking down barriers: Local nonprofit using sports to help kids manage anxiety, behavioral issues

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Young people in particular have struggled the last few years.

Doc Wayne Youth Services, a Boston-based non-profit, is using sports to help kids manage anxiety and behavioral issues.

One boy who is in the 5th grade told Boston 25 News, “What I like about sports is we get to play normal and have fun. It makes me control myself and my emotions.”

David Cohen, the CEO of Doc Wayne, said “We are using sport to work with kids who are facing mental health challenges, and in essence, we’re an outpatient mental health clinical service.”

Cohen said there was some resistance to their approach. “In the beginning people were saying it’s sports and it’s fun, so how can you say it’s therapeutic?”

The organization’s curriculum focuses on developing four key skills: teamwork, communication, resilience, and confidence.

Sessions are run by mental health professionals like April Rowell who is a licensed social worker.

For the kids, this really feels like a day a park.

Another boy told us the program is fun and competitive and “It’s bringing everyone together, if you have problems at home its safe to talk here.”

A girl said the adults and kids in the program have become like family to her.

Mental health issues among young people exploded with the pandemic and the programs Doc Wayne offers are seeing an increase in demand.

Rebekah Roulier, the deputy director and a licensed mental health clinician, said sports can be an amazing intervention when it’s used the right way.

She added “It’s not automatic. You can’t just say, I’m going to sign my child up for youth baseball or flag football and expect a mental health outcome.”

The fact these games look like a typical group of kids playing is Doc Wayne’s secret sauce, according to Cohen.

“There’s a lot of challenges out there. A lot of cultural barriers and stigma around mental health and a lot of kids and families don’t go and seek services. . . and so the benefit of our organization at Doc Wayne is to breakdown those barriers.”

That means services can be made available to a population that might otherwise be overlooked.

One of the 5th grade boys we spoke with added, “Because so many people don’t have the resources or money to play and this program is free, so you can just come here and play all these different things if you want.”

Even though Doc Wayne is based in Boston, they’re now getting requests to establish programs overseas, including one in Nairobi, Kenya.

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