The city of Merced had multiple town hall meetings at the end of February, including one at Tenaya Middle School in South Merced on Feb. 28. At these town hall meetings, the Mayor, City Manager, and City Council were all present to hear residents’ concerns.
Members of Youth Leadership Institute’s Rise and Lift program and residents of South Merced attended the meeting in support of a youth sports voucher program.
Rise and Lift program coordinator Jesse Ornelas explained that the idea of a youth sports voucher program came from the organization’s youth summer academy.
“We had about 18 young people [in the academy] and they had a long list of issues they would like to talk to y’all about, but the one we wanted to focus on was this one, the sports and recreation voucher,” Ornelas said to the city council. “It’s more than just sports. If young people in South Merced can’t join a sports team, they’re gonna join another type of team. We wanted to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”
A member of Rise and Lift, Mark Lopez, explained why he thought a youth sports voucher program would be beneficial to the community after hearing some of his friends’ experiences.
“Currently, there are some sports programs that are affordable for low income families but they are not always the sports of choice for the youth themselves,” Lopez said. “We hear on the news that the economy is getting better, and therefore I think a voucher program can be created for all sports in the city of Merced. The potential for youth wanting to engage in sports will probably rise and young people from low income families would have an opportunity to enjoy a sports program of their choosing at no or very low cost.”
Damien, a member of Rise and Lift who plays football and basketball, said to the city council that it would help him personally to be able to play the sports he enjoys without worrying about his family having to pay for it.
“Sports nowadays are getting like too expensive to where people can’t play because they don’t have the money for it and like, we’re trying to change that, so like kids have more opportunities to do what they want,” Damien said.
Young people are not turned away from a sports program run by Merced Parks & Community Services, as noted by multiple people, including Joey Chavez, Director of Parks & Community Services. Ornelas pointed out to the council that that is not necessarily the full issue.
“The thing is, the people of Merced don’t know that,” Ornelas said. “There’s pride in the way, there’s a lot of different obstacles that keep from wanting to ask for that type of help. So we just want to make it a little bit easier for young people.”
Chavez said that there are currently sports programs such as the Junior Warriors and NFL flag football. High schools also offer travel leagues during the summer.
According to Chavez, there’s more people from the central part of Merced who have signed up for sports programs and not so much South Merced, though they are trying to get the word out through flyers at Merced schools and social media. Chavez also said that they are working on trying to bring back programs that had previously been cut before, such as volleyball.
“That’s one of the things we want to bring back, but with budgets being conservative this year, we’re going to do the best we can,” Chavez said.
Though programs do exist, access and cost were still the biggest reasons for young advocates in Merced hoping for a youth sports voucher program.
“If we were to lower the price for all sports it would be really awesome,” Lopez said.
Lopez wasn’t alone in the sentiment.
“I know that the youth would appreciate a sports voucher because it would show that Merced cares about the youth,” Damien said.