The lack of social connectedness amid the global pandemic had a profound impact on the mental wellness of youth. Within cities like New York, the closure of public spaces—including schools, playgrounds and recreation centers—bedimmed the sense of community. As the world reopens, youth organizations are advancing their efforts to support children amid the shift. Amongst them is the Harlem-based nonprofit Hit the Books which was cultivated to empower kids through programs that sit at the intersection of sports and education.
Founded in 2019, the organization was established before the wave of the pandemic, but the existence of the global health crisis underscored its critical need. A study conducted by the New York City Health Department revealed 1 in 5 parents or guardians reported a decline in the emotional or behavioral health of their child due to being negatively affected by the pandemic. To revive the connectivity that had been lost due to isolation, Hit the Books—which serves students ages 6-13—opened its doors to the Harlem community during a time when schools were closing, and most recreational activities came to a halt.
“We wanted to make sure we were bringing an organization focused on the health, fitness and wellness of children in Harlem,” Hit the Books Executive Director Kazz Alexander Pinkard told NewsOne. “Our mission has always been to instill the values of self-discipline, ambition, compassion for others and resilience through the work that we do with young people. The resilience component truly resonated and served as inspiration as we opened during the pandemic.”
Staying in line with COVID-19 protocols, the after-school education program safely offered and operated an array of activities at no-cost that introduced youngsters to mixed martial arts forms. Among the classes led by fitness and wellness experts were Muay-Thai kickboxing, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, wrestling and boxing. Putting the focus on academic enrichment, HTB also provided tutoring and supplemental educational support for students from local public, charter and private schools in the community. Centering inclusion, the nonprofit welcomes scholars from all walks of life, including those with disabilities and developmental challenges.
Pinkard—a native New Yorker who has dedicated his career to uplifting and empowering children through his work in the nonprofit space—says taking a holistic approach to serving youth from under-resourced communities and truly understanding their needs and what they’re faced with day-to-day, helped inform how to construct a program like HTB. The nonprofit fosters an environment where students feel motivated to show up as their best selves and holds space for youngsters to share their thoughts and feelings on the current state of the world through community forums.
“We’re focusing on their ability to access all of the things that would make them successful” he shared. “We know their academics are a priority, but we also know we need to give attention to their physical, social, emotional and psychological health. We hope to create a space where all of those things can come together in a safe manner.” He added the skills garnered through sports are transferable in the classroom and can be applied to other areas of their lives.
HTB also puts the emphasis on representation as a majority of the students the organization serves are from diverse backgrounds. Through books like Brown Boy Joy, Hair Love and the children’s edition of the 1619 Project, Pinkard says it’s important to empower youth through reading material in which they see themselves reflected; teaching them about trailblazers from the past whose shoulders they stand on and showing them the world of possibilities that exist within their futures.
The nonprofit—which has served nearly 100 children from the local community since its inception—has plans to expand its reach throughout Harlem and is leading fundraising efforts to bring that vision to fruition.
At its core, Hit the Books—which has an advisory board comprised of New Yorkers who are passionate about equity in education—is exemplary of what it looks like when a community steps up and fills in the gaps caused by an inequitable school system.
“We see ourselves as a community within a community,” said Pinkard. “We strive to create equitable spaces where young people feel included and have their needs met.”