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Gimme Five: Bethany Henderson



Name: Bethany Henderson

Title: Executive Director

Organization: DC SCORES 

How did you end up here today, and what motivates you to work on issues to help our kids grow up healthier?

I loved playing team sports growing up – the camaraderie, the competition, the physicality, the emotional release. I firmly believe that it is because I grew up playing organized team sports that I never struggled with body image issues like many girls I knew; that I often turned to physical activity to mitigate life stressors; that I am a physically active adult who works from a standing desk. In my own home, I work hard to ensure that my two young daughters have lots of opportunities to be physically active, both as part of daily life and organized sports. I was horrified when I discovered that thousands of kids living just a few miles from us had no access to team sports. I believe every child deserves the chance to be part of a team – not just children from families who can afford to pay-to-play.

How are you working to change the environment to make it healthier and create a culture of health?

Nearly one-third of D.C.’s kids live right at or below the poverty level. Eighty-nine percent of DC kids living below the poverty level live in single-parent households, and in 54 percent of those families, the kids don’t have a parent who works. Organized sports are few and far between in their neighborhoods. Well over half of the families DC SCORES serves report their kids have no access to organized sports outside the soccer leagues we run. Organized arts programs are even more rare. Organized service opportunities are practically non-existent. And forget about access during the school day. Even though all three activities are proven essential to kids’ physical and emotional well-being – necessary for driving high academic performance - the focus on test scores has pushed P.E. and extracurriculars to the fringes. Today’s norm: 30-45 minutes once a week. Although pay-to-play leagues and fee-based classes have expanded to fill the gap, families struggling just to put food on the table can’t afford their entry fees. Nor do most of those families have the ability to regularly transport their kids across town to neighborhoods where such programs take place. That’s where DC SCORES comes in.

DC SCORES works to level the playing field for all kids. Our free after school programs and summer camps on public school campuses and community rec centers, provide organized, team-based, sports-centric, whole-child programming to thousands of DC children living in neighborhoods characterized by entrenched poverty.

The benefits of kids playing sports are well-documented — from improving physical fitness to learning how to be part of a team to developing resilience, persistence and leadership skills. Yet, youth participation in sports is on the decline. According to The Aspen Institute’s Project Play, regular sports participation by kids ages 6-12 declined from 44.5 percent to 40 percent between 2008 and 2013. That’s 2.6 million fewer kids playing sports in just five years! Introducing sports to kids like those we serve — kids for whom organized sport is new; kids who have little access to sports teams; kids whose parents may see little or no value in them playing sports — is a fragile exercise. A coach with the wrong priorities or disrespecting peers can quickly kill a kid’s motivation or demolish their self-worth, so much so that a kid may never play a sport again.

That is why coaches trained in positive youth development and a team culture that emphasizes sportsmanship as much as winning is so important when introducing kids to sports. At DC SCORES, we don’t just talk that talk, we walk that walk. Our soccer curriculum is built on positive youth development principles. The mandatory training we provide our nearly 200 coaches is built on a framework of teamwork, leadership, and commitment We also require all of our staff to go through positive youth development training, so they can effectively support our coaches and bolster on-field efforts.

We reinforce that culture on-field. Every DC SCORES soccer game, regardless of age of kids or level of competition, starts and ends the same way. Each game kicks off with a DC SCORES staffer, referee, or alum pulling both teams together, centerfield, for a fun, quick sportsmanship quiz and joint cheer. Games end by players and coaches high-fiving the other team. We schedule games and buses so that each school’s boys’ team can and does cheer on its girls’ team every week and vice-versa. Sure, the kids pay close attention to goals during the game and keep track of their team’s win/loss record, but they also learn that winning and losing without good sportsmanship simply isn’t enough.

What are your biggest accomplishments in helping children achieve a healthy weight?

DC SCORES achieves extraordinary results. Last year alone we provided intensive programming to more than 1,900 children. Together those children – supported by 194 coaches trained in positive youth development - played 644 soccer games.  Seventy-eight percent improved their body mass index after a single 12-week DC SCORES season, and 72 percent improved their aerobic capacity. For me, though, the ultimate goal is not a healthy weight today, but the lifelong enjoyment of an active lifestyle.

What excites you the most about showing up for work every day?

So what excites me most about our work is getting to spend time with young people like Madalin – a DC SCORES soccer standout who feared she would be made fun of if she joined a soccer team because she is a girl, yet now is a team leader who confidently shared how soccer changed her life before hundreds of physical activity innovators at Aspen’s 2015 Project Play Summit. Young people like Ingrid, an avid soccer player who, at 17, is the first person in her family to go to college — an accomplishment she credits to the discipline she learned and support network she built as part of DC SCORES. Or Carlos, who learned to channel his anger constructively under the guidance of a caring coach, transforming from a first-day-of-the-season bully to a season-ending team sportsmanship award winner. And Claudia (now a college graduate working for a women’s policy nonprofit) and her younger brother Jose (now a college senior) whose DC SCORES experiences helped them find their footing academically, and also gave Claudia the freedom to become a high-school soccer star because she knew Jose was safe, supported, and having fun after school.

If you were starting out in your career, what would you recommend to your younger self? Tip of the day from the person.

Don’t wait for someday. There is never THE right time to make a big leap, professionally (or personally, for that matter). There are only better times and worse times. Whether it’s volunteering for a new challenge at work, changing careers, starting a new organization, or moving cities, if you wait for THE right time, life will pass you by. So when you’re contemplating a big move, don’t wait for someday. Assess your situation, and if it’s a “better time”, go for it!

What game or sport did you play growing up? OR What was your favorite healthy food growing up?

I grew up playing basketball but, even though DC SCORES focuses on soccer, my heart belongs to Ultimate Frisbee – the sport I competed in nationally during and after college.


Each week, our own Amy Stone speaks with a Leader to get a quick look at why he or she loves working to create healthy environments for kids. Want to take part? Visit Amy’s profile and contact her.