In an important collaboration with faculty from the Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington (SPH-B), students at White River Valley Middle School in Greene County, Indiana are enjoying a welcome upgrade to sport-based youth development programming. Thanks to a SNAP-Ed grant of $47,163, Hoosier Sport—a campus/community partnership—aims to use “the power of sport to support and inspire a healthier future for youth and college students through collaborative research, teaching, and learning,” according to the Hoosier Sport Research Team.
The Hoosier Sport initiative is led by Kyle Kercher, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology; Cassandra (Cassie) Coble, Ph.D., clinical associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology; Vanessa (Martinez) Kercher, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Health & Wellness Design; Paola Andrea Fernández Solá, Master of Public Health (M.P.H.) student in Epidemiology; Sarah Greeven, M.P.H. student in Behavioral, Social, Community Health; and undergraduate students Nia Randolph (Sports Marketing & Management) and Aidrik Grube (Kinesiology).
“The idea came from our research team’s passion and experience with the life-changing benefits of participating in youth sport and physical activity,” says Dr. Kyle Kercher. “Despite coming from different countries and diverse backgrounds, each member of our team has their own unique story with the power of sport and how it has impacted our lives.”
Greeven says that she was initially attracted to this project because of its focus: The well-being of children through physical activity, leadership, and sports is right at the heart of Hoosier Sport, and helps them establish healthy habits from an early age.
“I firmly believe that physical activity and adequate nutrition are crucial for children's overall development, both physically and mentally,” shared Greeven in a recent conversation. “It concerns me that many children today are leading sedentary lifestyles, which can have long-term consequences for their health. Hoosier Sport aligns perfectly with my personal values and professional interests. I have always been passionate about promoting children's health, and I see this as a significant opportunity to make a positive impact.”
Getting the ball rolling
The project was initiated “from scratch” when Dr. Kyle Kercher, Fernández Solá, and Greeven attended a White River Valley (WRV) School Board meeting to discuss the premise of Hoosier Sport. This invite was formally supported by the WRV Superintendent Dr. Bob Hacker and WRV Middle School Principal Mitch Hobson. Since then, the Hoosier Sport Research Team attended WRV Middle School Field Day in May for initial survey data collection with kids, parents, teachers, and administrators. The team is also preparing to launch intervention co-design sessions with WRV kids and adults this summer and pilot interventions in the fall of ’23 and spring of ’24.
“The SNAP-Ed grant funding formally launched on May 29, 2023, but the community relationship was initiated well before then,” says Dr. Kyle Kercher. “Paola attended the second stage IDOH interview where we had to present the grant idea, respond to initial reviewer feedback, and respond to reviewer Q & A. Students are essential elements to the success of Hoosier Sport, which aligns very well with IUB 2030 strategic initiatives looking for more community-based research initiatives for students to engage with. This initial research infrastructure is crucial to developing long-term sustainable project proposals.”
Hoosier Sport has been modeled after Husky Sport at the University of Connecticut (UConn) and two programs at The University of South Carolina: Children’s Physical Activity Research Group and the Arnold Childhood Obesity Initiative. Dr. Kyle Kercher recently visited each of these institutions and shares that these are all “well-established NIH- or USDA-funded programs making a tremendous impact on the health of children. We hope to harness the relationships, community-building, and college student service-learning components of Husky Sport, coupled with the innovative, quantitative physical activity-based study designs and research infrastructure of the initiatives at the University of South Carolina.”
Most crucial to getting the program off the ground: SPH-B student engagement, from conceptualizing the ideas to critically reviewing the grant proposals. Sarah Greeven emphasizes the importance of maintaining “a growth mindset" while they developed the program, and how being able to directly engage in sports program outreach, development, and management has been crucial to her own professional development.
“Writing grants, developing protocols, and navigating Institutional Review Boards (IRBs)…it has taught me to approach challenges and obstacles with an open mind, allowing for continuous improvement and identifying areas of growth that may not have been initially apparent,” says Greeven. “This experience has fostered my ability to embrace change and view setbacks as opportunities for learning and development. It has helped me become more adaptable and resilient, which are essential qualities in any career or life situation.”
Crucial mentorship engagements
Paola Andrea Fernández Solá shares that she has developed a profound passion for engaging with and mentoring youth over the last five years, particularly focusing on under-resourced communities. Involving her athletic aspirations has proved to be a recipe for success. “Establishing meaningful connections with these students while supporting their journey has become a fulfilling calling for me," she says. "The Hoosier Sport initiative aligns closely with my aspirations, with a unique emphasis on sport-based youth development activities...the prospect of engaging in such an interesting and challenging project greatly appeals to me, and I am eager to contribute my expertise and enthusiasm to its success.”
Dr. Kyle Kercher echoes Fernández Solá’s sentiments, adding, “The powerful influence that college students have on role modeling and supporting behaviors of children is well recognized. Children tend to view young adults as being more credible, having a better understanding of the concerns of young people, and are more likely to model the behaviors of peers than adults.”
A bright future
As of summer 2023, Hoosier Sport is further supported by an OVPR Award for Research Methods Collaboration and CITL Summer Instructional Development Fellowship to develop its SPH-B college student service-learning course, Intro to Sport-Based Youth Development. This course will provide the essential service-learning infrastructure to connect college student mentors to WRV Middle School.
“The partnership between WRV and IU’s Hoosier Sport is exciting on several levels. Having lived in Greene County for most of my life, I know that our students desperately need chances to learn and develop healthy habits with physical activity, nutrition, and overall lifestyle choices,” says Hobson. “The resources and personnel that a world-class organization like IU can provide through this partnership will be the perfect opportunity for our students. I am ecstatic about the possibilities this partnership will bring to our district both now and for years to come.”
For more stories about SPH-B students and faculty making a big difference both locally and worldwide, visit go.iu.edu/48bx.