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Grad student runs Boston Marathon to benefit Hartford youth

by Beth Krane - April 23, 2007

As a UConn undergraduate, Jordan Maleh played varsity baseball for two years and was a walk-on for the men’s basketball team in his senior year.

This year, as a master’s degree student in sport management and sociology, he set his sights on a new athletic goal: running his first marathon, the 111th Boston Marathon, on April 16.

Maleh did not have far to look to find the motivation he needed for the 26.2 mile race, including months of training runs totaling 30 to 40 miles a week. He found it in the Husky Sport program created by his advisor, Jennifer Bruening, an assistant professor of kinesiology, who heads UConn’s Laboratory for Sport Management and Sociology.

She launched the Husky Sport program in 2005 with the goal of connecting UConn students and student-athletes with African-American adolescents in Hartford’s North End through school-based after school and summer physical activities.

Bruening, whose research focuses on obstacles to African-American girls’ involvement in sports, designed the program to expose youths in the North End, particularly girls, to a variety of sports and physical activity they might not otherwise have, and to foster lasting relationships between the youths and their UConn mentors.

During the 2005-2006 school year, Husky Sport provided activities at Hartford’s Kelvin D. Anderson Recreation Center on 58 afternoons and sponsored 17 field trips, including trips to UConn’s main campus in Storrs and to UConn athletic events.

The program also sent student volunteers to physical education classes at Hartford’s Lewis Fox Middle School 38 times, and at the Hartford Catholic Worker House 10 times.

During the past two years, the program has expanded to include boys and girls of all races and backgrounds at the activity sites.

At the Anderson Center, there is a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a weight room, and basketball courts.

But the center lacks equipment for many sports and physical activities, such as jump ropes, volleyballs and nets, soccer and kick balls, swimming pool accessories, and field hockey equipment.

A much-needed facelift for the facility is in the city’s budget, but additional equipment is not.

So Maleh has made it his goal to raise at least $2,000 to buy some of the equipment the Center lacks.

And the students, mostly middle school age, know he is running the race for them.

On April 15, Bruening took a small group of girls who regularly participate in Husky Sport to Boston for an overnight trip, so they could be there bright and early on Monday morning to watch Maleh run the race.

The girls earned the privilege of the trip by meeting a series of physical activity and healthy lifestyle goals Bruening, the UConn mentors, and the girls set for this school year.

The City of Hartford also chartered a bus to take some of the other boys and girls and recreation center employees to Boston to wait for Maleh at the finish line, wearing T-shirts with his image.

“I decided if I’m going to do this, if I’m going to run this race, I have to stay motivated,” Maleh said. “Now, when I’m running, I just stay focused on the kids.”

Maleh grew up in an affluent family in suburban New Jersey, with parents who constantly supported him in school and sports, often driving him to athletic practices and watching his games.

He began participating in Husky Sport through a related service-learning class that Bruening teaches for undergraduate and graduate students, and was immediately struck by just how little youths in Hartford had, compared to his own upbringing.

Many of their parents have to work multiple jobs and do not have the time to devote to playing sports with them, shuttle them to practices, and attend games.

He said the kids wanted such simple things for the recreation center, like swimming pool accessories and soccer balls.

“Husky Sport not only provides Hartford youths with mentors and a glimpse of college life,” said Maleh, who was required to keep a journal as part of the class he took last spring, “it provides the UConn students, many of whom want to become professional sports managers, coaches, and teachers, with a great opportunity to learn what kids are like at this age and how we can be positive role models for them.”

Bruening said research has shown that physical activity declines during adolescence for all girls, but that girls of color experience that decline at twice the rate.

As other studies have shown that physical activity for this age group lowers the risk for everything from obesity and related diseases to teenage pregnancy, it is particularly important to counter that trend in Hartford and nationwide, she said.

“The most important part of Husky Sport is the repeat contact between Hartford youth and the UConn mentors.

Sports provided our initial connection with the youths, but it has really evolved into so much more over time, Bruening added.

“The youths have increased their physical activity and come to enjoy it much more, but they’ve also formed friendships. In the process, we’ve learned so much about them and they’ve learned so much about us.”

Maleh completed the race, despite unprecedented wind and rain, in 3:52:53. He has raised more than $2,000, with donations still coming in.

Donations can be made payable to the UConn Foundation with Husky Sport in the memo and mailed to: The UConn Foundation Inc., 2390 Alumni Drive, Unit 3206, Storrs, CT 06269.

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