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Playing to learn, learning to play at UMD’s first-ever LiFEsports camp

Free camp, hosted by SPH, serves Prince George’s County youth on UMD campus

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Kid smiling and running to first base in kickball

For about 30 campers from Prince George’s County, this summer is a time for sports – all the sports. They’re playing soccer, flag football, frisbee and more. And – judging by the smiles even on a hot day at the University of Maryland campus – they’re having a fantastic time.

“I get to play with teammates and throw the ball,” said 12-year-old Douglas Rodriquez. He’s also getting the secret sauce of Maryland’s first-ever LiFEsports camp – the life skills. So far, he’s learning: “Encourage people, and don’t give up. And do your best. Try to make things better.”

Learning to play and playing to learn – about fitness and how to lead in life –  are the heart of this free, nationally acclaimed summer camp led by Dr. Jay Goldstein, a senior lecturer in the UMD School of Public Health’s Department of Kinesiology.

“LiFEsports camp has an impact on the kids,” Goldstein said. “They’re becoming more socially adept, and you can see their growth on a daily basis.”

The camp forges pathways from classroom lessons to real-world experience, and from playing sports to building life skills. All the while, camp leaders are doing research “to substantiate that we are making an impact,” Goldstein said. A partnership with Ohio State University and made possible by donations, LiFEsportsprovides a month of high-quality programming – including transportation and meals – to children who might not otherwise get to attend. The program is supported and managed by the Department of Kinesiology.

On Thursday, those students had a surprise in store. Walt Williams, 11-time NBA player and Terp basketball legend, visited the camp to reinforce both the sports and the life skills.

Former NBA player coaching summer camp for kids

After helping the campers hone their basketball techniques, Williams shared hard-won wisdom that got him from a UMD freshman struggling to make a dent on the team to a professional basketball career. "We just keep working at it,” he said. “When you make a mistake, you go, ‘Oh man, what did I do to mess up?’ And then you try to correct it. That’s what life is, right? Do your thing, and then when you make mistakes, you learn from them – and then you try again.”

Goldstein also credits staff at Mount Rainier Nature Center, part of Prince George’s Parks and Recreation, as an invaluable partner in connecting the camp to children from the community.

LiFEsports counselor Samuel Merga, has learned the theory about using sports as a conduit to teach life skills as a School of Public Health student getting an MPH in physical activity. But out here on the field, he’s testing out a career path, he said. “It’s helping me connect the book content to the real-life content.”

We’re trying to instill these core values in the kids one step at a time, one day at a time.

Samuel Merga LiFEsports Counselor | SPH Student, Kinesiology

“We’re introducing campers to the potential of various sports, and that helps reinforce healthy habits like physical activity and emotional regulation,” Merga said. “We’re trying to instill these core values in the kids one step at a time, one day at a time.”

Merga’s fellow counselor Rimike Daramola agrees. The SPH kinesiology student is interested in starting a business related to fitness, and helping start up a new camp is teaching her entrepreneurial skills and more. “I do love working with kids,” she said, and “helping them make essential connections. Each kid is taking home a value.”

The campers have been “so supportive of each other,” said counselor Phoebe Etzold a 2024 SPH graduate in kinesiology. “It’s awesome to see.”

Students get pins for each value they’ve learned, and Rodriquez already has a literal handful of pins – and skills – to share.

His fellow camper Denisse Membreno Torreseool, 9, is also happily collecting skills. Ask her what she’s enjoying most, and her face will light up. “I have two favorites: one is volleyball and the second one is soccer.” She’s made five friends so far and can talk about how social responsibility means helping people not give up. She hopes to come back in future summers, “all the time if it’s possible.”

Goldstein hopes this summer is the start of many more years of LiFEsports, with new features like a Spanish-language curriculum, new sports, and more students – both children and collegiates – getting a chance to grow through sports education.

He’s already overjoyed seeing this project, years in the making, finally come to life. Goldstein’s not the only one.

The best part? “When you give a camper that ‘aha’ moment, and you see the twinkle in their eyes,” Merga said. “Tomorrow, anything is possible for them.”

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  • Department of Kinesiology