Running long, running strong: in its 25th year, Hershey’s Track and Field Youth Program is just getting going

Running long, running strong: in its 25th year, Hershey’s Track and Field Youth Program is just getting going – Cover Story

Scott Douglas

Peter Snell, who won three gold medals in track and field in the 1960s, titled his autobiography “No Bugles, No Drums.” Snell’s point was that his twice-daily workouts, done in obscurity but with the faith that they would pay huge dividends, were the cornerstone of his success. The title–and the ethos behind it–apply equally well to Hershey’s Track and Field Youth Program as it celebrates its 25th year.

Started as a playground track and field program in 1975, the Hershey program has become the largest youth sports program of its kind in North America. Nearly 400,000 children from 3,500 communities in the U.S. and Canada ran, jumped or threw at local track and field meets this year as the first step toward participating in this month’s North American final in Hershey, Pa. Despite these big numbers, however, the program remains true to its founders’ vision. For more than 20 years, the mission statement has remained the same: “To provide a quality recreation program where children have fun and are introduced to physical fitness through basic track and field events, such as running, jumping and throwing.”

Opening Lap

In 1975, Dr. Donald Cohen had read too many reports about American children’s lack of fitness, and decided to do something about it. His solution? An all-comers track and field meet, the goal of which was not to identify future Olympians, but to give children in the Charleston, W.Va., area exposure to basic sport skills through the world’s oldest sport. The goal of participating in the meet, Cohen hoped, would give the children a reason to get active, and the fun they would have at the meet, he hoped, would give them incentive to keep at it. About 500 kids did just that.

Just one year later, Cohen’s vision had spread statewide. Thousands of children throughout West Virginia vied to qualify for a state final meet. And Cohen wasn’t done dreaming–he wanted to make the meets a national phenomenon. “He realized he needed a national organization to make it happen,” says Larry Best, current director of the North American final meet. “That’s how NRPA got involved.”

In 1977, the meets expanded into the 10 states that then constituted NRPA’s Southeast Region. “They used NRPA’s regional alignment,” Best says. “Then, when it went national the next year, they followed NRPA’s national scheme, with just a little tweaking.” NRPA has been a partner of the program ever since, and nearly all of the local meets are put on by local park and recreation agencies. Throughout its history thousands of dedicated park and recreation professionals and scores of volunteers have contributed to the program through NRPA’s Network.

At the same time, Hershey Foods Corporation was looking for a national program to support in tune with company founder Milton Hershey’s views on community. A grassroots, outcomes-oriented track and field program fit the bill.

“To be honest, the NRPA trustees were a little skeptical when the idea of working with Hershey was first brought up,” Best says. “There was concern that Hershey, with that chocolate connotation, wasn’t a good match.” But as Best points out, “even up to today you don’t see anything in the program materials about Hershey products. We don’t urge the kids to eat candy. The participants get a letter on what good nutrition is, and most of our promotions point them back to NRPA.” Best says that Hershey devotes about $750,000 to the program every year. The bulk of that is spent bringing 480 participants and 140 chaperones to the North American final. Some also goes toward putting on state and, in Canada, provincial finals, which serve as qualifiers for the North American final.

Ease of Effort

The program has remained remarkably consistent in its 25 years. Participants run, jump and throw in friendly competition in two-year age groups. Since 1981, those age groups have been set at ages 9 and 10, ages 11 and 12, and ages 13 and 10, The program used to include 15-year-olds, but the directors decided to make 14 the top age because 15-year-olds could quite likely participate in high school track and field programs. The standard events–short races, relays and a softball toss for the youngest athletes, slightly longer races topping out at 1600 meters for the oldest–have been in place from the start.

Track and field’s simplicity explains some of the program’s success. Says Best, “We intentionally make it as inexpensive as possible. You can’t run in spikes, you can’t use starting blocks. Uniforms aren’t required.”

Even the two events that aren’t part of most youth track programs-the standing long jump and the softball throw–have a certain logic to them. “People ask why we don’t have a running long jump,” Best says. “Well, what if you’re putting on your meet on a playground? Some people putting on the local meets don’t have anywhere to land if you’re doing a running long jump. So we do the standing long jump. The softball throw? Every local park or recreation agency is going to have a softball.”

A Head Start

The program’s meet record in the 1314 girl’s 200-meter dash is held by Monique Henderson. In July, Henderson won the junior world championship title at 400 meters. She is far from the only top athlete to have passed through the program–Mary Lou Retton, for example, was a Hershey participant years before she won five medals, including one gold, in gymnastics at the 1984 Olympics.

But being a breeding ground for world-class athletes has never been central to the program. As Best notes with pride, the word “fun” has been part of the mission statement from the start. “The most disturbing thing for me,” he adds, “is getting a call from an irate parent saying their child didn’t have fun.”

It makes sense, then, that when asked what his main goal for the program is, Best talks not about the glamour and prestige of the North American final, but “providing the Hershey experience for more youngsters at the local level. To provide more opportunities for kids to get into good fitness programs and have fun, well, that would be great.” No bugles, no drums, but plenty of positive outcomes.

A RUN THROUGH THE YEARS: HERSHEY HIGHLIGHTS

1975

Local all-comers meet and clinic held in Charleston, W.Va. with 500 participants.

1976

State meet held in Charleston, W.Va.

10,000 participants in local and state meets.

1977

NRPA Southeast Regional meet held in Huntington, W.Va.

10 states represented.

250,000 participants in local and state meets.

1978

1st national final meet conducted.

50 states plus District of Columbia participate.

300,000 participants in local, district, state and national meets.

1980

Age groups changed to include 9-year-olds.

1981

Age groups changed to include only 9- to 14-year-olds.

1982

National final meet held for the last time in Charleston, W.Va.

Hershey Foods Corporation awarded NRPA’s National Corporate Humanitarian Award for its involvement in the Hershey Youth Program.

1983

Hershey Foods Corporation takes over as funding sponsor.

Program moves to Hershey, Pa.

1984

Meet moves to Henry Hershey Field, Milton Hershey School.

New York (West) added to the program.

1989

National Association for Sport and Physical Education added as national sponsor.

Focused effort to introduce Hershey Youth Program across the U.S.

1993

Program founder Donald Cohen awarded NRPA’s National Humanitarian Award.

1996

Final meet becomes North American final with participation of Ontario, Canada youths.

Name changes to Hershey’s Track and Field Youth Program.

1998

Program expanded to include all Canadian provinces and territories.

Athletics Canada becomes a sponsor of the program.

2002

25th anniversary of the program.

Scott Douglas is the editor of Parks & Recreation. For information on how to get involved in Hershey’s Track and Field Youth Program, write to programs@ nrpa.org.

COPYRIGHT 2002 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group