New Running USA Guide: Creating Successful Kids’ Programs
Two of the nation’s most successful year-round running programs for kids, the Cowtown Calf and Kids Run the OC, share some of the best practices that have contributed to their impact and longevity
As running programs across the country look towards the future, many have recognized that one of the best ways to ensure a future generation of committed runners is to nurture them as kids. As a result, most large races have incorporated some type of youth running program into their organizational mission statements and priorities.
These youth running programs take on many forms. Some are single day events that just entail young runners showing up for a fun short race, while others are year-round school based programs requiring the support of volunteers, teachers, parents and paid staff.
Two extremely successful programs produced by Running USA members are the Cowtown’s CALF Program in Fort Worth, Texas and the Orange County Marathon’s Kids Run the OC program (pictured) in Southern California. We caught up with both programs recently and came away with some key takeaways about what makes their efforts to get kids running so successful. Read on to find out what they’ve accomplished and how they do it.
Kids Run the OC was recently honored as the recipient of the 2019 Running USA Youth Grant at the organization’s annual conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The $10,000 grant, awarded each year, supports a youth programming initiative that advocates the benefits of youth running, combats obesity and supports family and youth health initiatives.
Kids Run the OC has been part of the Orange County Marathon since the early days of the event, which began in 2004. Like most large kids’ programs – Kids Run the OC will likely reach 10,000 youth runners in 2019 – it started small and grew consistently over time. This year, the program will be take place in 170 Orange County Schools, more than half of the schools in the sprawling Southern California county.
The Cowtown CALF program is another year-round, school-based running initiative with similar participation demographics to Kids Run the OC. Both programs are working with large low-income populations among their young runners, meaning that keeping the cost of the program as low as possible is essential to its success.
Heidi Swartz, Executive Director of the Cowtown and a Running USA board member, described how the program has evolved into its current version in the last decade. It all started when one of the running coaches who annually brought a team to the Cowtown Kids Run showed up to pay for her runners’ entry fees – with her personal income tax refund check.
“I asked her why she was doing that, and she replied that she really needed these kids to get exercise, but their families could not afford to for them to run in the event. So we went looking for grant money and ways that we could help fund the kids running,” Swartz explained. The next year, she spotted another obvious challenge: their shoes.
“At the finish line, we were watching the kids that we had given scholarships to, and they were running in hiking boots, flip flops and cloth shoes with no arches. So the next year, we added a free shoe program. It was a natural progression,” said Swartz.
This year, Cowtown 5K – which is now funded almost entirely with proceeds from the Cowtown’s adult races, had 8000 finishers under age 18. Nearly 6000 of those were part of CALF and running in shoes that they received as part of the program. Over the last 10 years, 30,000 kids have received shoes. The program reaches 105 schools in 17 districts and has donated $1.5 million in shoes and race entries to kids in need so far.
We interviewed the directors and staff of both these programs and collected more than a dozen valuable takeaways for anyone hoping to develop a successful kids program. Those insights are available in the document below.
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