Highlighting his Learning Through Recreation platform point, Clarke shines through team-building with a philanthropic twist.
It's a program designed to get area kids off the street and in touch with their untapped potential while offering exhausted parents a breather...time to get the groceries or focus on paying their bills, but The Safe Zone is so much more than meets the eye.
“I believe that if we instill dedication, determination, discipline, and work ethics in our youth from a young age - and mix it with skills and life choice classes - it will start to teach them responsibility and how to hold themselves accountable for their actions from a young age!” - Aaron Clarke, The Safe Zone Program Announcement
While the program is still recruiting participants for its inaugural, Covid-cautious class, Coach Clarke and his team are fully confident in their plan to teach kids the practical applications of their academic skills (and vice versa) and enhanced coping mechanisms for life's pitfalls through the lens of sports education.
The Good Work
The idea is simple. Most sports encompass at least two things underprivileged kids could use help with: mathematics and social development. You do math every time you recognize a "down" in football. If the field is 100 yards split in half according to teams, and the player took possession of the ball at the opponent's 18 yard line to run a 44 yard conversion, how many yards are left between the player and his own team's end zone? Now, that may hurt your brain if you aren't a sports fan, but most people familiar with football will tell you the answer is 38 because 100 - 18 - 44 = 38. Pretty simple, right? What about if the player was sacked, but the ball went down out of bounds? You're going to need the social skills to 1) handle being sacked without getting into a brawl, 2) process the game's rules and the referee's judgement to know whose turn it is next (ie - which team has possession), 3) understand what to do next, whether that means contesting a flag, calling a timeout to regroup, or choosing the next play, and 4) move on with the game in order to win.
Sports can get a bad wrap when individual players act out, but a solid foundation in sports education gives underprivileged kids the coping mechanisms they will need to meet the so-called American Dream of pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. Sports can help kids understand educational concepts that are otherwise just...boring or dense such as Ethics and Statistics, or seemingly foreign, like the Metric System.
It's a well-documented fact that sports education can be beneficial to childhood development, but pay-to-play league programs often leave behind the 'least of these'...the kids who need them most. What do we mean by the 'least of these'? The children whose parents cannot afford even the disused football pads and cleats from Goodwill, the kids who would be embarrassed to show up at practice in yesterday's t-shirt, the families choosing each day whether to eat breakfast or dinner because they just don't have resources for both. That's why The Safe Zone's volunteer staff made their decision to keep it 100% FREE to all families, provide each child with a brand new Safe Zone t-shirt to wear in class, feed the kids whenever possible, set program hours to work with school times and parent schedules, and get the kids involved in giving back to their community to help de-stigmatize poverty one person at a time.
Getting It Together, Together
Coach Clarke believes in people. It isn't always easy to do, and organizing adults to give their time can be just as difficult as organizing children to pay attention in class (or more!)...but it's good work that's worth doing. Clarke knows the difference sports can make in a child's life because he has personally trained his eldest son in boxing to great success. His three younger children also enjoy training under their dad, although in football basics -- Clarke has coached multiple peewee teams -- and two of them recently started on their very first peewee league in NWA. But even Coach Clarke had to cast around for pads when it came time to enroll.
That isn't a hardship Clarke wants anyone to share in which is why, while not yet a 'league' of its own, The Safe Zone is geared to provide basic sports and motivational instruction and drills in a no-contact atmosphere...to provide parents the time they need to take care of bills and home responsibilities while their kids prepare for later entry into a school team where access to proper gear for contact sports is much easier to come by. To make this work, a team of volunteer parents and staff are on hand organizing fundraisers and activities, gathering supplies, and providing program support by lending their personal expertise to the kids in other sports like Soccer and Volleyball. They have also gotten involved with making the Safe Zone a space for children of ALL abilities from repurposing a hammock to be used as a sensory swing for autistic kids to brainstorming other offerings, like art and dance, for children with physical disabilities.
The Safe Zone is a safe space for all children to learn through recreation, and what could be more noble than that?