A goal to live by

July 24, 1991

For most of us, the heat wave has sapped energy and made spirits sag. But for a bus load of Baltimore youngsters, the heat hardly matters. They are leaving today for one of those unforgettable childhood experiences -- a trip that will broaden their horizons, challenge their bodies and sharpen their mental discipline.

These young people are the cream of the city Parks and Recreation Department's track and field program, which is open to boys and girls ages 7 through 18. Their destination is Chapel Hill, N.C., where they will compete in The Athletic Congress (TAC), a National Junior Olympics event. The bus returns late Sunday, only to leave again on Tuesday for Tallahassee, Fla., where the city will be well represented in the Amateur Athletic Union's National Junior Olympics meet. Some of the youngsters will continue from there to Atlanta for the U.S. Youth Games.

With all that to look forward to, why let a heat wave get you down? Or, for that matter, why let drugs or too-early pregnancies or dropping out of school ruin a chance to see the world, perhaps collect some medals and certainly earn some self-esteem? As Ralph Durant, the coach and driving force behind this remarkable program, reminds city children, running is its own natural high.

In good years, when there's enough funding to keep the program going year-round and to send kids to national competitions, the Baltimore City Ed Waters Track and Field Development Program costs about as much as the city spends to operate one recreation center. And look at the benefits! While about 40 of the 150 young people on the citywide team qualified for the national meets this year, hundreds more kids around the city have a goal to work toward. Goals can make a big difference in young lives. Over the past six years, for instance, department officials say they are not aware of any team members who dropped out of school. Only two girls became pregnant and, for more than 50 participants, track and field became a ticket to college.

Last week, a report on the city's recreation program recommended that the department redeploy its shrinking resources, in part by closing some recreation centers and shifting others to private organizations. Closing facilities is not a popular thing to do -- unless officials show the public how the city can benefit from putting money into people rather than buildings. The eager, healthy faces of the young people setting off today for Chapel Hill tell that story far better than facts and figures ever could.

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