Fourth and fifth grade girls participate in a softball clinic as part of the Girls Play Sports program at Walker School. Photo by Kelley Elwood

It started on the playground four years ago. “Girls don’t play sports.” That’s what Erin Livatino, a 5-year-old kindergartner, was told by a group of first-grade boys playing soccer at her elementary school. She told her parents the story that night. At the same time, her dad, Evanston Township High School Athletic Director Chris Livatino, was trying to understand the gap he was seeing in the sports participation numbers between boys and girls at ETHS and the drop-off in participation for a lot of girls once they reached middle school. A few months later, Mr. Livatino got into a discussion about the same topic with an ETHS parent Liz Brieva, mother of seven Evanston school children and former ETHS standout athlete, and a plan was hatched to increase girls’ participation in sports in Evanston.

The concept was simple – use ETHS female athletes to introduce younger girls to a wide variety of sports earlier in life while instilling pride and confidence in being an athlete. Four years later, that simple plan has grown into an expansive array of programs; all zeroed in on that same concept. Last fall, ETHS hosted the Fourth Annual Girls Play Sports Festival for more than 225 fifth-grade girls in Evanston. In December, ETHS athletes taught their 100th Girls Play Sports clinic to fourth- and fifth-graders at participating District 65 schools. Last summer, ETHS hosted a “sold out” Girls Only Sports Camp for middle schoolers.

But with every new program comes an even greater demand to sustain the girls’ interests and appetites as they grow older That is where the idea for Team GPS was born: to create a comprehensive year-round opportunity that exposes middle-school girls to two new sports each month. Additionally, Team GPS engages these future leaders in discussion about critical topics that face young women today. The goal is to open their minds to the possibilities that exist in sport while giving them the critical thinking skills to better navigate their future as strong, confident women. As Ms. Brieva says, “We are not just trying to build better athletes. We are trying to use athletics to build better women.”

At the Team GPS sessions, ETHS student athletes teach the skills and drills, while Ms. Brieva coordinates the discussion topics. The groups meet three to four Sundays a month. Northwestern student athletes will often join in the sessions by participating alongside the middle-schoolers or teaching the discussion topic lesson for the day. So far this school year, Team GPS has successfully taught monthly units on basketball/lacrosse, soccer/cross country, and volleyball/track and field, while diving into deeper discussions on topics such as how to foster stronger relationships and friendships, the pitfalls and opportunities of social media, and better ways to manage health and nutrition. More than 50 different girls have participated in at least one of the programs offered thus far, and the vast majority of them are repeat participants and Team GPS members.

The elementary GPS program brings a variety of sports to fourth- and fifth-grade girls once a month after school. ETHS student athletes run drills and teach basic skills to participants during each one-hour session.

Not only is the program bringing sports to middle- and elementary-school girls, but high school athletes are benefiting from the experience as well. “It’s a way for us to practice leadership skills,” said Jaden Janzen, an ETHS sophomore and varsity softball player. Ms. Janzen, along with teammates Catie Rudy, and Zoe Kurtzer, ran a softball clinic at Walker Elementary School in February.

The girls in the clinics clearly enjoy the program. “I love it,” said Alyssa Ledesma, a participant in the monthly GPS program at Walker School. “I will definitely play softball again.” Najaya Donald said that girls’ sports are a “very good way to express yourself, play with friends and have a really good time.” Shania White added that the program “shows girls can play sports too.” Added Jamyla Barnes, “It helps girls be more of a team.”

“I am proud to say that over the past two years, female participation at ETHS has risen by almost 25% [766 to 955], and I believe the Girls Play Sports program has had a lot to do with it,” said Mr. Livatino.

The elementary GPS program is free; scholarships are available for the middle school Team GPS program.

Anyone wishing to learn more, to register for an upcoming session or to make a donation to the program may call 847-570-9165 or visit www.teamgps.org.