Youth sports and mental health program spreads from Ypsi-Ann Arbor area to Seattle

An informal summer program for underserved youth in Superior Township has blossomed into a program blending sports, nutrition, and social-emotional learning for youth across the Ypsilanti-Ann Arbor area. 
This article is part of a series about mental health in Washtenaw County. It is made possible with funding from Washtenaw County's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage.

An informal summer program for underserved youth in Superior Township has blossomed into a program blending sports, nutrition, and social-emotional learning for youth across the Ypsilanti-Ann Arbor area. 

That program, the Community Leadership Revolution (CLR) Academy, is now available at four different locations across Washtenaw County, and a soccer club in Seattle has also started its own CLR Academy. CLR Academy is a partnership between two local organizations: Washtenaw County My Brother’s Keeper (WMBK), which supports the education and growth of young men of color, and the Mighty Oak Project, the nonprofit arm of the AFC Ann Arbor soccer club. CLR Academy also received support from the Hart and Tay Train Foundation, which provided equipment, snacks, and jerseys for youth and stipends for coaches.

Jamall Bufford, director of WMBK and member of CLR's leadership team, says CLR Academy started when he and co-founder Justin Harper began bringing sports equipment to Sycamore Meadows and hosting activities for young people in 2020.

"It was the summer of COVID, and there was a lot of violence taking place, and community members were stuck inside," Bufford says. "[Children] weren't going to school, and their parents didn't feel comfortable letting their kids outside when there was practically a shooting every week."
CLR Academy co-founder Jamall Bufford.
Sycamore Meadows community members asked Bufford to start some safe activities for their kids, and Bufford says that made sense since the neighborhood is home to some of the most underserved families in Washtenaw County. Volunteers from WMBK were already known in the area for helping the Washtenaw County Health Department distribute masks and cleaning supplies there in summer 2020.

Bufford recruited Harper, who loaned his truck to the effort to tote sports equipment to the neighborhood each week through the summer.

Harper says the initial focus was on "providing kids with something positive and constructive to do during COVID." 

Bufford and Harper were excited to come back for a second summer with more resources and having "really fleshed out programming design and our vision," Bufford says. By 2021, the program was officially established as CLR Academy.
CLR Academy co-founder Justin Harper.
"Community Leadership Revolution really represents what we do," Harper says. "It's about community, teaching kids about leadership and the importance of being connected to one another."

The academy focus crystallized with the addition of a third co-founder, Bilal Saeed, a partner with AFC Ann Arbor. The soccer club's community work focuses on fighting hunger and racism. 

"[Saeed] also had that community-building, restorative focus," Bufford says. "We always start with a circle, a check-in icebreaker, as an example of that community-building aspect of what we do."

Saeed says he was happy to support community members' request for safe athletic activities for young people.
CLR Academy co-founder Bilal Saeed.
"This program promotes healthy living and opportunity to young kids who are being priced out and excluded from the youth sports, weekend programs, and other basic opportunities," Saeed says. "We started CLR Academy at Sycamore Meadows because of the large number of youth at that property, most of which don’t have access to these types of programs."

An expansion of the program was made possible with funding from Washtenaw County's mental health millage. CLR Academy is now offered year-round at South Pointe Scholars, a charter school in Superior Township. Bufford says organizers have a contract with Superior Township that runs through June 2024. The program also runs in the summer only through a partnership with Avalon Housing at Carrot Way Apartments and Pauline Apartments in Ann Arbor. The program was offered at Sycamore Meadows again this past summer but has yet to be confirmed there for summer 2024. 

The programming focuses on "sports sampling," nutrition, and social-emotional skills. Through bringing in a variety of presenters and equipment, Harper says youth get to sample everything from soccer and basketball to yoga and breakdancing.
CLR Academy at South Pointe Scholars in Superior Township.
"Sports is really just the hook," Harper says. "We use sports to teach them about problem-solving and life skills. We want to teach them creative thinking, how to make a positive impact with their unique skills and gifts they bring to this world, [and] that they have something inside of them nobody else has."

Harper says sports have built-in opportunities for young people to learn about mental health concepts like problem solving, bouncing back after a loss, taking a deep breath when feeling frustrated, and more.

"Sometimes if we lose a game or get hurt, we have to bounce back and have resilience," Harper says. "You're going to have these times when you're frustrated and want to quit or leave and you don't want to play the game anymore. But when you grow up, you can't just quit your job or quit on people who care about you. So we try to teach you how to self-regulate. We encourage and motivate by example."

With some of the agreements at various locations running year-to-year, Bufford says he's not sure what the future will bring for CLR Academy. He's been doing a lot of grant writing, hoping to gain more funding for the program.
CLR Academy at South Pointe Scholars in Superior Township.
However, the model has proven successful enough here that it inspired Ballard FC, a soccer club in Seattle, to license the Washtenaw County-based sports programming and run its own CLR Academy on the west coast. The Seattle CLR Academy just finished its first summer season.

Saeed says a fellow soccer player in Seattle, Sam Zisette, reached out about CLR and how he could bring the program to his area. 

"We did our best to create this as a duplicable program, and their launching of CLR Seattle proved how this can be adapted to different communities," Saeed says. "Youth sports are becoming more exclusionary and unbelievably expensive, and that means fewer young folks participating. Low-cost or free programs are being cut, and we wanted to fill that gap."

CLR Academy published an impact report in 2021 detailing the impact and lessons learned from its first year of programming. Read it here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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