Kevin Alvarado got going in an intense game of dodgeball on a recent Wednesday afternoon at Chelsea Piers.
Communication and teamwork, he said, were key to success.
Alvarado, 19, isn’t a typical young sportsman. He is one of an estimated 60,000 homeless youths in New York City often concerned more with where they will sleep than scoring points.
But through a new initiative by philanthropist and entrepreneur Heidi Burkhart, who is partnering with the Covenant House and Chelsea Piers Sports Center, Alvarado and dozens of other young people now have the opportunity to experience the benefits of a comprehensive fitness program.
The Covenant House youths participate in a variety of sports and fitness activities designed to promote not just fitness and health, but also to cultivate collaboration skills, perseverance and dedication and parlay those attributes into newfound confidence that, hopefully, will allow them to find renewed success.
“Fitness in my life is very important and is something I attribute a lot of my success to,” Burkhart said. “Through fitness, you build goal setting tendencies and you build accountability because you can aesthetically see the difference in your body. When you are fitness minded you are thinking about setting goals, adhering to goals, and taking it step-by-step in order to reach them.”
The program also stresses the importance of teamwork, communication and working towards a common goal. “I really liked the fact that everybody joined in,” Alvarado said. “People that usually don’t communicate with each other had a chance to communicate and participate in something together.”
Though she is still honing the program, Burkhart noted that at the last session they had the chaplains of the New York Knicks speak, then she talked with the youth about a business mindset before directing them to various team-building and goal-setting events. The pastors were the first in a series of guest speakers lined up for coming months, which will include executives, professional athletes and other significant figures.
In addition to the monthly events, Burkhart provides the youths with a newsletter filled with “take-home” workouts, fitness tips, other programs they can get involved with, as well as ways to contact and interact with the program via social media.
Covenant House serves youths aged 16-21 and works to reach individuals at a critical time in their lives when they are easily influenced, when good habits can be formed and lives can be transformed.
Covenant House was a good fit for this initiative, since it doesn’t just provide shelter for homeless youths, but provides programming to help these individuals become productive and successful, Burkhart said. Last year, Covenant House provided shelter and essential services to more than 2,000 city youths. But since access to fitness does not fall under essential services, Burkhart sought to remedy that.
“We are a youth development center that just so happens to have housing for youth that are experiencing homelessness,” said Shakeema North, the director of youth development at Covenant House New York. “Just as much as we provide basic need to young people who are homeless, we also want to help them develop the life skills and other skills they need so that they can be successful in whatever their stable place is beyond Covenant House.”
North said that the fitness program gives the youths something to look forward to and to work towards. It also provides another valuable resource that young adults can turn to outside of Covenant House for support.
For Alvarado, this show of support was perhaps the most important thing he would take home. “I really appreciated the participation medal that Heidi gave us at the end of the program,” he said. “It contained her contact information and it made me realize that there is support here. If I ever want to come back, or need any help, there are people out there who really care.”
There are currently over 1.6 million homeless youths accounted for nationwide, and that number is steadily on the rise.
“This is the age where homelessness starts a lot of the time,” Burkhart said. “They need to have more attention and more resources to know that they’re not alone.”