BAWSI gets young girls interested in sports

BAWSI girls offer a cheer during the final session of this fall's program at Selby Lane Elementary in Atherton, Calif. Don Feria/isiphotos.com

Atherton, Calif., is an unmistakably affluent place, large homes bordered by iron fences and brick walls, cars gliding through the tree-lined streets.

The fence line on Selby Lane is broken by the footprint of Selby Lane Elementary School, a neat but aging campus in the middle of the neighborhood. The signboard in front of the parking lot, detailing upcoming school activities, is written in Spanish.

Most of the children who live in the neighborhood go to local private schools. The kids who attend Selby Lane are bused to campus from nearby Redwood City. Many are the children of people who provide service work in this neighborhood, including housekeepers and gardeners.

Twice a week at Selby Lane, on the back playground, a group of 65 girls don purple T-shirts. They scream and squeal as they play kickball, twirl hula hoops and chase each other around the grass playing tag.

"You see some of these girls out here at recess and they are just sitting," said Marlene Bjornsrud, executive director of the Bay Area Women's Sports Initiative. "Then they get out here and they feel comfortable to run around."

Since 2005, the mission of BAWSI has been bringing fitness programs to underserved girls. The group works to engage young female athletes. BAWSI (aptly pronounced "bossy") has taken root in the area south of San Francisco and is on the verge of becoming a national model.

BAWSI was born on an afternoon hike. In the months after the WUSA women's professional soccer league folded, Bjornsrud -- the former general manager of the San Jose CyberRays -- pondered what would come next, not only for her but for the athletes who had played in the league and spent so much time in the community fostering relationships.

She batted around ideas with Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy.

The day it came together, Bjornsrud and Chastain were on a long walk in the hills above the Silicon Valley. They talked about wanting to serve young girls who weren't being exposed to organized sports, or even to physical education classes, in some of the area's least privileged schools. They wanted to reach girls in communities where obesity and diabetes were prevalent. They talked about wanting to engage young female athletes, to give them an opportunity to connect and serve.

And BAWSI was born.

In the seven years since, BAWSI has served more than 15,000 students, covering a 75-mile stretch north and south of San Jose. They have engaged women's athletic teams at Stanford, San Jose State and Santa Clara, along with local high schools and community colleges. They have raised more than $3 million to fund their initiatives and have been recognized by the White House.

This fall, BAWSI ran programs at 20 elementary schools.

"The need in the community continues to grow and grow," Bjornsrud said. "We've got little girls in high-poverty areas who lack P.E. or any kind of physical activity."

Raising the bar

Five recent college graduates have assumed positions as athletic engagement coordinators, working directly with elementary school administrators in a particular geographic area to run fitness programs and recruit local athletic teams to pitch in.

This year's inaugural group, whose members accepted one-year paid internships, come from a national cross-section of athletic experiences. Taylor Lydon and Aumornai Edinburgh played college basketball at Chico State and San Jose State, respectively. Rachel McGillis played water polo at Bucknell. Megan Wirth was a softball player at Santa Clara. Carrie Dew played soccer at Notre Dame and professionally in the now-defunct WPS. BAWSI's goal is to expand to 10 such positions in the next three years, all in the name of serving more girls and engaging more female athletes.

"When I was first getting out of college, I would have loved an opportunity like this," said Foudy, who did a large chunk of the legwork to raise the money to fund the positions. "You are surrounded by phenomenal women doing good, and a great mentor base. You get to connect with schools and athletic departments and coaches and you get to work with young girls. It's a great life experience."

On this Thursday afternoon, Dew, the site manager at Selby Lane, is out on the grassy space behind the blacktop, putting out cones, pulling journals out of a duffel bag, setting up for the weekly one-hour session.

More BAWSI staff members are on the way as school lets out.

Young girls -- the BAWSI Girls as they are called -- begin streaming across the playground lugging their backpacks, tossing their pink and purple bags against the fence.

One of the girls walks up behind Dew and puts her arms around her waist. She hangs on as Dew walks. Dew gives her a squeeze, then directs the girls to sign a poster for the Stanford lacrosse team, the designated "coaches" who have been working with them for the past few weeks. The Cardinal athletes will be here any minute.

The first 65 girls (third through fifth grade) to sign up are participating in this BAWSI session. Another will start in February. At some school sites there is a waiting list.

As the Stanford athletes and the rest of the staff arrive, the girls sit in a large semicircle as Dew goes over the plan for this session. She asked the girls, on this last day before a six-week break, what the best thing is about their "coaches."

Hands shoot up in every direction.

"They are fun and I love them," one girl responded.

"They always laugh with us and we have fun," said another.

It's time to split into groups for the day's activities, which include kickball, tag, an obstacle course, soccer and journal time, when the girls sit and reflect on their experiences. They write about things like self-esteem and nutrition, then discuss the things they learn.

A good tired

Wirth, who was a BAWSI athlete volunteer when she played softball at Santa Clara, said she has seen many shy and reserved girls start to come out of their shell as a result of their BAWSI time.

"It's fantastic to watch that happen," Wirth said. "I usually get here an hour early or so to set up every week, and the girls will be out at recess and they run over and they all want to help. They want to sit and chat and help me set out the journals and put up the cones. You know they love being here."

McGillis joked that she feels like a "celebrity" at her school sites sometimes.

"One of the girls told me that she was new to fifth grade and this helped her make friends, and that's a great feeling," McGillis said.

Edinburgh's territory is in Gilroy, about 25 miles south of San Jose. She has felt a particular connection to her athlete volunteers. She has been working with the community college athletes at Gavilan, and some days she goes over to scrimmage with the basketball team that works at her sites.

Dew said she's exhausted at the end of the day.

"But in a really good way," Dew said, looking over at one of the journal groups where one of the girls has planted herself on the lap of one of the athletes.

"They love to do that," Dew said.

As the hour winds down, the girls sit again for a quick debriefing. They are then handed certificates for completing the session and have the chance to get autographs from the lacrosse players, athlete coordinators and BAWSI staffers.

The BAWSI girls gather up their backpacks and prepare to take the bus back to their neighborhoods.

Model organization

Bjornsrud is receiving calls from athletic departments across the country that want to send their athletes to do similar community work. They want to use BAWSI's model. Bjornsrud said the organization is creating a "tool kit" as a guide to run the program elsewhere.

BAWSI has extended its outreach to disabled students, with its BAWSI Rollers program, and to adult women, many of them the mothers of the girls they are serving. That program is called Salud por Vida.

And through the participation of former San Francisco 49ers tight end Brent Jones, BAWSI has coordinated a number of "Dads and Daughters" days at local sporting venues, including Stanford basketball and San Francisco Giants games.

"BAWSI is what we hoped it would be, for sure," Foudy said.

Chastain joked that when they founded BAWSI she told Bjornsrud that someday it would be "everywhere."

"She would give me the staredown," Chastain said. "But that's the thinking now."

Foudy said the impact of BAWSI is going far beyond sports.

"We want to get young girls in the habit of living life and being active," Foudy said. "We want to give them skill sets, the ability to deal with adversity, confidence, goal-setting and respect, and all of these great things. And we are hearing from teachers and parents that we are making an impact."