In a Youth Sports Landscape Where Competition is King, Run4Fun Inspires Those Who Just Want to Play

An interview with Run4Fun founder Nicoletta Nerangis on why & how she developed a program to build character and community for kids without the pressure to win trophies.

UpMetrics Content & Social Media Manager, Bryan Kitch, connected with Nicoletta Nerangis, founder of Run4Fun, in July of 2018 to discuss the origins, development, and future goals of the growing running program in New York City.

Bryan:
What inspired you to start Run4Fun?

Nicoletta:
The inspiration for the idea of Run4Fun came in 2010, when my then 7-year-old son, Panagiotis, and I were on a run near our home in Brooklyn. At the end of our run, as we stretched, I said to Panagiotis, “You love to run, why don’t you join a running team?”

He said, “No, Mama, but if you do it—if you start the running team—then I’ll join it.”

That was the ‘Aha’ moment.

I had recently graduated with my Masters in Social Work from Fordham University and was thinking about what my next step would be for my career.

Some background story: Running saved my life. I’ve struggled with depression throughout my life, and running truly saved me. I’ve completed 11 marathons along the way, including New York City and Boston, and running continues to bring peace to me. So, when I saw a connection with my son’s struggles with school anxiety (and his friends’ similar struggles), and how the running truly helped, I began to see how running could be the key to saving many lives.

It was after that run with Panagiotis that I began to bring him and his friends to Prospect Park every Friday after school to run and play running & tag games, and I would bring them to races all over the city for a year. I took some time off from work at that time, and created the group as a volunteer.

The kids and parents loved it, and I loved it—little did I know that I would find my calling, all because of my son’s idea!

“He said, ‘No, Mama, but if you do it — if you start the running team — then I’ll join it.’

That was the ‘Aha’ moment.”

As fall approached in 2011, a job opened at Panagiotis’ elementary school. It was the position of background coordinator, to oversee recess for four hours per day. I had the interview with Principal Liz Phillips, and told her about my running group, and what we had done for the past year. I told her about the NYRR youth programs, and that if she were interested, we could bring the programs to her school, and that I would run it. She loved the idea, and I began running the programs at my son’s school in the fall of 2011.

In the fall of 2013, Panagiotis and many others that ran with me graduated from elementary and began middle school. Panagiotis’ friends and parents told me they still wanted to run with me, and what was I going to do? I thought, well, I guess I have to start my own running program, and I started Run4Fun in the fall of 2013 with seven kids, including Panagiotis.

Soon word got out, and Run4Fun began to grow. Initially, we had seven kids. Then 15. Then 25. And then, in April of 2014, we became a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Bryan:
Do you feel there’s a niche for non-competitive athletic activities that is currently not being addressed?

Nicoletta:
There is a great need for non-competitive athletic activities that is not being addressed. I personally see this in NYC schools. We go into schools that do not have a PE teacher, many that do not have physical activity during the school day or after school. There continues to be a great risk of child obesity, and risks of health issues, including diabetes and heart disease, and mental health issues.

Run4Fun was founded from a love of play and running in a non-competitive setting. My son (a talented runner) did not want to join a competitive team, but rather wanted to run in an atmosphere of play. I soon discovered that many, many of our youth joining Run4Fun were the same.

The youth express that they love the element of play, fun, and creating friendships. Parents and educators say that it helps the youth socially and emotionally. They share many stories of youth experiencing anxiety and challenges surrounding school, and how being active with other youth helps to relieve their challenges and promotes their self-esteem.

Many kids in our program have these challenges, and some do want to take part in competitive sports, but most just love to play and be active. If it weren’t for the element of play and fun in the athletic activities, then they likely would not participate. When they experience this nurturing environment of being active, they return—they see that playing and being active makes them feel better about themselves, their friendships are deepened, and they begin to discover their dreams and aspirations. They see that being active is fun, and I believe it inspires them to continue to be active for life.

Nerangis and her son, Panagiotis

Bryan:
Once you saw that the idea resonated, how did you go about building the program?

Nicoletta:
It began to grow organically, with the help of many connections and supporters. We were honored to receive the Nike Community Impact Fund grant to bring our program in this past year, and Run4Fun continues to partner and collaborate with the communities we serve.

Our program in our first location in Park Slope began to quickly grow by word of mouth. Parents of the original seven kids who started with me encouraged me to start Run4Fun, and it was a parent (a non-profit lawyer) who helped us become incorporated as a non-profit organization.

A friend of mine, Gary Morgan (an Olympian race walker), also encouraged me to start Run4Fun. The manager at the time of JackRabbit Sports running store, Todd Colby, was also very supportive. He encouraged me to make business cards, create a Run4Fun Facebook page and Twitter account (and now Instagram), make fliers, and create a website. He provided the space at JackRabbit for our youth to drop bags after school and then head to Prospect Park for our Run4Fun session.

“Many kids in our program have these challenges, and some do want to take part in competitive sports, but most just love to play and be active. If it weren’t for the element of play and fun in the athletic activities, then they likely would not participate.”

Many of the parents of the youth continued to connect me with other partners. Another community partner and Fordham professor, Mark Naison, connected me with organizations, schools, and principals in the Bronx, including Jamaal Bowman’s school, Cornerstone Academy, where we began our program with his female students this spring. Our Run4Fun Coach-Mentors have joined our team organically as well, with each Coach-Mentor bringing the next to become part of our team. They are all creative, dynamic, love children, and believe in our mission.

I’ve been meeting with community leaders, community officers, principals, and the community members to collaborate ways we can promote health and wellness in the youth and adults of the community. We are so excited to partner with a local non-profit and church, beginning this fall.

We’re seeking funding and grants to continue to expand our program in underserved communities of NYC, including East Flatbush/Brownsville and the Bronx. Collaboration continues to be key in building our program. It’s very exciting to see the energy in communities to help in getting youth active and holistically well.

Bryan:
When did you add youth development components to the program? What inspired that move & how has it evolved over time?

Nicoletta:
Parents expressed that Run4Fun was integral in helping their children transition to middle school. Many struggled with this transition, and having a nurturing place to share their experiences with one another while running and playing was a huge help.

So, I began to develop the Run4Fun Curriculum (a social-emotional learning curriculum), and we traveled to races all over the city. The Run4Fun Curriculum promotes wellness in youth mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially through running.

It began with themes for the week, including “Fueling Healthy Paths,” “Running Buddies,” and “Meditative May,” promoting holistic wellness, caring for oneself with proper nutrition, rest, strategies to reduce stress, yoga, meditative breathing, and nurturing one another—supporting one another. One of my Coach-Mentors, who was one of the first to join our team, Mariah Freda, has been instrumental in working together with me to evolve the Run4Fun Curriculum over time. We implemented “hurdles,” where the youth have an opportunity to share their goals and any challenges or victories they are having in their life. We work together with our youth to develop steps toward their goals and strategies to help with any challenges they are having. We also work with our partners, including principals, to collaborate in helping the youth. As we have expanded, I meet the principals in schools where we bring our program to assess the needs of their students.

Our Bronx school’s principal felt that the socio-emotional element of our program is what his female students needed, and so we created a Run4Fun female group at his middle school. The principal of our East Flatbush school told us that his students would benefit from a mentoring element of our program. When we return this upcoming school year, we will be implementing a mentoring element with the students, with the support of the principal, parent coordinator, and dean. This is an exciting evolution inspired by the principal.

The nature of our curriculum has also been inspired in part my my son’s educational experience. He is home-schooled, or, as I like to call it, “world-schooled.” For him, that means elements of the arts (art, music) are built into his studies—integrating the arts into academic subjects makes learning come alive.

For example, when he was studying the approach of World War II, he visited an exhibit of artwork from the 1930s at the Neue Gallerie Museum for German and Austrian Art in Manhattan. That trip inspired a Run4Fun event this spring, when we partnered with Snake Run (a running art gallery tour) and organized a Run4Fun museum destination run to the Brooklyn Museum and see the David Bowie exhibit. The kids loved it and the adult runners were so thrilled to see the joy and excitement on the kids’ faces.

Run4Fun participants at the David Bowie exhibit in Brooklyn

Planning destination runs and field trips ties into the curriculum the youth are studying in school, and we see this as an important component of our program going forward, partnering with schools and museums.

Bryan:
Going forward, how do you see program data helping you to continue to grow Run4Fun?

Nicoletta:
We are very happy to be partnering with Algorhythm and UpMetrics this upcoming school year. I am thrilled that we will have data to help support Run4Fun. The results will help us to evaluate our program and promote our program’s effectiveness and increased efficiency.

The data will also help ensure that our program’s mission and curriculum is being implemented as planned in our different locations. It will show us if any adjustments need to be made, where our program is effective and if needed what supports and changes need to be put in place.

Data is also essential when applying for grants and funding, and to show to our stakeholders. I believe that data drives growth and positive change and is incredibly valuable in clearly communicating the positive impact we are having in young people’s lives socio-emotionally through sport.

Bryan:
Will Run4Fun and UpMetrics work with other stakeholders (e.g. schools, districts, participants, parents, etc.) to measure impact?

Nicoletta:
Yes! Run4Fun and UpMetrics will work together with schools, communities, participants, and parents. Our partner schools are thrilled that we will measure the impact of our program with the students that participate in Run4Fun. In addition, we plan to look at the data results together.

Principal Bowman, for example, is very excited to see the attendance results and to see the connection between positive attendance and Run4Fun. He has already communicated that he has seen a positive impact in the students that participate in Run4Fun and their attendance. They attend school 100% of the time on days that they participate in Run4Fun—the kids look forward to school on the days they have our program.

“I believe that data drives growth and positive change and is incredibly valuable in clearly communicating the positive impact we are having in young people’s lives socially and emotionally through sport.”

Moving forward, it will be amazing to see the data clearly communicate what Mr. Bowman has already seen. We can then take this data and show it to the districts and stakeholders to show the positive impact—that children’s lives are being transformed—and then gain the support needed to be able to expand to have an impact on a greater number of youth.

Collaboration is key in making positive change in the world.

Bryan:
Anything else you’d like to add?

Nicoletta:
My son, Panagiotis from the birth of Run4Fun to the present, continues to be instrumental in the operations, heart, and vision of Run4Fun. I share with all our youth that children can and do have powerful ideas that can change the world.

Thanks very much to Nicoletta Nerangis!

Story by Bryan Kitch for the UpMetrics journal, Data For Good. Photos courtesy of Run4Fun.

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Athlete, artist, writer. Content Marketing Manager at @cerego. Twitter: @bryankitch

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