Engage Sport North activates physical literacy initiatives during pandemic

She saw it as an opportunity.

Mandi Graham is the executive director of Engage Sport North, an organization that promotes physical literacy across a broad swath of northern B.C. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to isolate at home, she knew her organization would have to innovate in order to keep people active. She also realized it would be a good time to activate many of the initiatives they had been planning, now that they had a more captive audience.

“When this all began to happen, I reflected on the fact that we needed to do something to pivot our delivery. We had to look at how we service our communities or make drastic changes to our staffing in these uncertain times. I looked at all areas of our business, all the pillars—grassroots, physical literacy, high performance, education—and brought the team together to come up with a solution,” she said.

Engage Sport North was well positioned to make an impact as the organization works as a leader in high performance sport, participation and physical literacy. That leadership role has been further broadened with their participation in the multi-sectoral Physical Literacy for Communities (PL4C) project, so Graham had ongoing working relationships with organizations such as the Northern Health Authority, as well as local school districts and recreation departments. With these partners they were able to scale ideas quickly.

“My team and I discussed some different ideas on how we can support the community and schools, and we came up with a plan. We had a lot of fun with it, using PLAYBuilder to upload all of our curriculum content, and eventually we started making some videos as part of our fitness challenges. We realized we needed something to engage the kids differently than just having an adult on screen, and that’s when we came up with this fun character named Jogger Rob.”

Jogger Rob is a digital avatar of Rob Stiles, the manager of physical literacy for schools. With him as a mascot, Engage Sport North began releasing different movement challenges seven days a week. For Stiles, one of the most important elements of the work was ensuring that the videos were inclusive.

“It was important to me that these videos be available to anyone, and would show how you can adapt them for people of different abilities, so that literally anybody could do it. They could access it through PLAYBuilder, or through social media, and we also had hard copies we gave out to anyone who wanted them,” he said.

Many of the communities covered by Engage Sport North are remote or rural, which was an additional challenge while mobilizing these initiatives, but the team was thrilled by the enthusiastic uptake. Families reported coming together daily to participate, while others became invested in the leaderboards that tally everyone’s progress.

“The communities are responding amazingly well to all of the things we’ve done virtually, especially the online daily movement challenges, and we’ve had synergies across the whole country. We were able to reach the smaller communities, and we’ve been able to quantify that people are getting active all over,” said Graham.

Erica McLean, the community school coordinator for SD57, believes the group activities and playful competition online have brought people together in ways they hadn’t even anticipated. They’re witnessing a social cohesion among participants that they didn’t see pre-pandemic.

“When we sat down in early April and talked about what our intentions were and what we collectively wanted to accomplish, we said we wanted to create opportunities for wellness and connection. That’s exactly what happened with Jogger Rob and our leaderboards. It’s been such a great tool for building community,” said McLean.

Recently the Engage Sport North team enlisted some varsity athletes to participate, increasing their reach. They’ve introduced “Brain Break” videos where they explore movements and activities that will engage different parts of the brain, and the athletes star in them. Some of the partners who have thrown their weight behind them include Northern Health; University of Northern B.C. Research; Northern Adapted Sports; Northern Lights College; and Indigenous Sport, Physical Activity and Recreation Council (I·SPARC).

“We also purchased access to the Sport for Life campus and provided the community with the opportunity to complete courses, subsidized by us. We’ve had a great uptake for that among community members, coaches, parents and educators, who really wanted to increase their knowledge while they have this opportunity,” said Graham.

The pandemic also spurred the creation of a home athletic program for the athletes in school sport programs through Google Classroom. Engage Sport North hosted live work-outs and provided athletics support, including access to psychologists to ease the students through the transition. She believes the infrastructure they’ve put in place will continue to be useful long after the pandemic is over, and will provide a foundation for building into the future.

Sport for Life CEO Richard Way regularly meets with Graham to discuss the numerous synergies between the two organizations, including the PL4C project that Prince George started in  2018. He came away feeling buoyed by the stories of innovation, and with new ideas about how to inspire others.

“We already know that we’re living in a period of uncertainty and innovation, but I honestly couldn’t believe how quickly and effectively Engage Sport North was able to activate new initiatives that will ensure positive health outcomes for people living in northern B.C. We’re all learning from one another,” he said.

“I personally can’t wait to see the extraordinary impact this work has on the community, and to see these sorts of initiatives mobilized across the entire country.”

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