Magic Join Forces With GROW Central Florida and Seminole County Law Enforcement to Encourage More Youth Sports Participation

by Josh Cohen

SANFORD, Fla. - Whenever Deputy Sheriff Amber Belanger of the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office makes a stop at a nearby park or any other location where you’d find playing fields, courts and other sports facilities, a wide smile spreads across her face when she sees children participating in physical activities.

Considering it’s a mission of Seminole County law enforcement to encourage youth to play sports and be active, witnessing it first-hand is extra gratifying for Belanger and her cohorts knowing the children are staying fit and out of trouble.

What’s dispiriting, however, is when they find out many parents can’t afford to sign their kids up for recreational sports or provide them with the equipment necessary to participate in team-oriented activities. With this being an unfortunate reality, those working in law enforcement throughout Seminole County are not going to let that prevent kids from developing a passion for sports.

Recently, six law enforcement agencies, including the Seminole County Sheriff's Office, Sanford Police, Longwood Police, Casselberry Police, Lake Mary Police and Altamonte Springs Police, launched the Second Annual GROW Central Florida Summer Ball Drive, a program that helps each participating organization connect with youth who do not have the opportunity to partake in organized sports. With assistance from several organizations, including the Orlando Magic, the agencies amassed more than 600 sports balls, including basketballs, soccer balls, footballs, baseballs, volleyballs, etc., which will now be delivered to underserved children in the area.

“Not only are we helping kids with their fitness, eating healthy and being more involved, but we’re also bridging that gap between the youth and Seminole County deputies, law enforcement in general,” Belanger said.

Magic Community Ambassador Bo Outlaw was on hand at the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in Sanford on Thursday to deliver 100 basketballs, which were loaded up into cruisers and taken to nearby police stations and substations. From there, deputies and officers will carry the balls in their cars and will pass them out to children during the course of their duties.

“Amazing, the energy that he (Outlaw) brings is amazing, everybody is loving it,” Belanger said. “Can’t thank them (the Magic) enough.”

Aside from helping combat the problem with their donation, the Magic are proud to work side by side with Central Florida’s champions of the community.

Outlaw, who played for four NBA teams including two stints with the Magic during his 15 years in the league, knows how important it is for kids to play sports. Not only does it improve their health, but it also allows youth to build positive, long-term relationships with others.

“We’re doing a great thing by giving them the balls, but they’re being active which is a great thing for them,” he said. “They are doing something they enjoy with something they want to do whether it’s football or basketball or softball or baseball or volleyball, whatever it is, whatever ball. But, they’re being active and bettering their lives and actually building relationships, communicating with other kids and making new friends.”

“Balls bring people together,” Outlaw added. “If you got a ball and you’re in the park and you can throw it, then the next person throwing it with you and you don’t even know them but then you made a new friend by playing catch. That’s what it’s about, just bringing the community together.”

Increasing opportunity for physical activity and healthy living among youth is the prime focus of GROW Central Florida, which emboldens children and helps provide them with the resources they need to stay active in sports.

The volunteer outreach program, which was launched in 2015, has revitalized play spaces, provided schools with recess equipment, participated in family and community engagement events and partnered with law enforcement in youth-based neighborhood programs, where they’ve provided kids much needed sports gear such as sneakers and socks.

“It is amazing to have the Orlando Magic by our side because as much as I want to get the kids excited, when they see the Magic and the magic that comes with it, they are inspired, they are excited, they want to get outside and they want to play with their basketball,” GROW Central Florida Founder and Executive Director Colleen Gonzalez said.

“When our organization contributes to efforts and I see kids out there playing, especially those that are playing independently, I am just excited because they are not in front of the television,” she added. “They are out, engaging, using their social skills and also while participating in the basic play, they are helping reduce their stress levels, which in today’s culture for our children is incredibly important.”

The youth of Central Florida are not the only ones benefiting from the charitable efforts of local law enforcement. On Saturday, the final day of National Police Week, the Orlando Police Department will launch its first Senior Appreciation Program project. Officers will head over to the homes of elderly people who have physical and mental limitations and assist them with minor home repairs, painting, and yard maintenance.

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