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Coaching program fights youth obesity

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Michael Jordan juggled tennis balls in a gym with 29 young adults learning to coach inner-city youngsters.

Not THAT Michael Jordan.

This Michael Jordan also loves basketball but coaches it at a New York City after-school program and is part of the group being trained to guide kids to become better and thinner people through sports.

“In my neighborhood, growing up, you’re just surrounded by so many negative influences,” said Jordan, who lives near Yankee Stadium and was point guard and captain of his high school team. “When you don’t have that safe haven to go to, you’re subject to those things. I had somewhere to go and that was my basketball team.”

Paul Caccamo wants more of those places — a lot more that combine education with sports. With economic problems leading to cuts in gym classes, recesses and community-based activities, fewer youngsters are physically active, particularly in low-income areas, he said.

So the 44-year-old former teacher in the South Pacific and China spearheaded Coach Across America with support from the federal AmeriCorps program.

The goals: reduce dropout rates, gang activity and childhood obesity.

“Trained coaches can literally change the country,” said Caccamo, a Long Island native. “There are so many urban youth dropping out of school because there isn’t a coach to say, ‘You’re going to belong to this team and you’re going to support each other.’”

More coaches mean more opportunities, so 30 trainees attended a three-day Coach Across America institute recently at Wheelock College, a few blocks from Fenway Park.

They heard talks about “what does a practice look like, all the way up to understanding development theory and what’s the difference between a second-grader and a ninth-grader,” said Megan Bartlett, director of research and training for Up2Us, a national coalition of about 400 sports programs of which Caccamo is executive director.

How do you recognize what kids may be going through at home and address their problems? What are the differences in coaching boys as opposed to girls?

And what was all that juggling about?

“One way to teach someone how to teach is to give them a skill they’re not adept at,” said Diana Cutaia, Wheelock’s director of athletics who ran that session. “In this digital age, no one knows how to juggle.”

That allowed the trainees to experience the same thing as the youngsters they’ll be supervising.

“You’re teaching something new so you want everybody to start off on the same page,” said Jordan, 26, who aspires to a career as a basketball coach after seven years of coaching teams at a summer camp for Urban Dove, the community program where he works. “After a while, I started to get a lot better. So now I can juggle.”

Caccamo was invited to Tuesday’s unveiling of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to increase public awareness of childhood obesity but said he didn’t go to the first lady’s announcement when it’s location was shifted from a community center in Washington, D.C., to the White House because of heavy snow.

“There are not enough adults out there who are engaging kids in physical activity,” Caccamo said. “The idea is: let’s create this work force of college students and even high school graduates who want to give back to their community.”

Erin O’Boyle, 23, played varsity lacrosse at Johns Hopkins. After the training, she returned to MetroLacrosse in Boston, a nonprofit that emphasizes sports and education.

“I love lacrosse and I got involved with underserved youth when I took a criminal justice course at Hopkins,” she said. “This is a good way to combine my interests.”

Meagan Lombaer, 26, attended Boston University, spent two years in in the Peace Corps in the Gambia, and works at America SCORES Chicago, part of a national soccer program started by Caccamo.

“Sports play such a powerful role in the kids we work with,” she said. “It’s all about sports combined with something else. SCORES is soccer and poetry.”

By the end of this year, Coach Across America plans to have 113 coaches at 31 programs in 12 states.

“Training is so important because a bad coach could be worse than no coach,” Caccamo said. “We’re trying to build a whole work force of sports coach role models for kids who, in many cases, have never had a coach in their life.”

Caccamo graduated from Georgetown in 1987 and spent one year teaching on Ebeye in the Marshall Islands, “a total slum in the middle of the Pacific” where people were relocated from nearby islands on which the U.S. government conducted missile tests.

He also taught in China before returning to the East Coast to teach and try “to figure out how to keep kids inspired.”

He got his answer when he watched a soccer practice with 120 excited girls in uniforms and committed adult coaches in one of Washington’s poorest neighborhoods. Sports, he discovered, was a way to motivate youngsters and keep them in school.

“They’ve got to feel a connection to a school. They have to have an adult who they actually trust,” Caccamo said. “Our program will provide the work force that changes the childhood obesity issue and turns around dropout rates.”