APRIL 26, 2022 — Teachers like Abe Salmon can see when their students need something that’s keeping them out of an activity. The physical education teacher in Wasilla knew kids would be cold when he took them outside for class, given many didn’t have coats.
As the wrestling coach at Wasilla’s Redington Sr. Junior and Senior High School, Salmon could see some students were lacking a key piece of gear: special shoes that can cost up to $100. Finding the money to buy the coat or cover those wrestling shoes was too much for many families.
“Sometimes even that is a barrier to competing,” Salmon said. “If I can take that barrier out the way, I will.”
Salmon wanted to put these kids at ease, help them not worry about the cost. Join the wrestling team, he said, and we’ll figure out the need for shoes once we get rolling.
Salmon figured it out by working with a new program in Alaska called the Game Changer, which is run through Alaska’s nonprofit Healthy Futures. Throughout the year, Healthy Futures staff consider and approve Game Changer applications to provide scholarships that help children ages 5–18 participate in activities, buy sports equipment, get basic clothing items and more.
This winter, Salmon filled out an application to cover the cost of shoes and new protective head gear for his school’s wrestlers. The next month, his application was approved. This year, paying for the cost of shoes wouldn’t prevent a student from joining Salmon’s wrestling team.
And that’s the whole point of the Game Changer program: Remove whatever hurdle is blocking a child from participating, and then get them back in the game.
The Basics program provided running shoes to help a rural school host its first cross country running meet.
Creating the Game Changer program
The goal of Game Changer isn’t new in Alaska, but the name is. During the past year, Healthy Futures took over a long-running program that was called The Basics and then expanded it, renaming it the Game Changer fund.
The Basics was a nonprofit program founded and run for almost a decade by Pam Skogstad. Skogstad, who lives in Hope, is a physical education specialist with about 30 years of experience adapting PE for children of all abilities in Alaska’s public schools.
From the beginning, The Basics set out to improve equity in terms of youth participating in healthy physical activities. What could it provide to ensure more kids could participate in activities and sports? Skogstad knew the need was there for a program like The Basics. A nurse at a Mat-Su school let Skogstad know a student got off the bus wearing only socks. Another student wore bags taped around their shoes to keep them from falling off.
The Basics worked with school districts and professionals across Alaska, including counselors, teachers and nurses. Those school leaders would hear about a child in need and request help through The Basics. Each time, the request was discreet, minimizing the chance a child would feel singled out or recognized as someone in need of shoes, coats or other items.
The Basics program sent gym shoes to elementary-age students who needed them in Mat-Su Borough schools.
Between 2012 and 2021, The Basics helped 10,000 students in school districts from Dillingham to Kenai to Mat-Su. The Basics was able to fill these needs due to funding and support from partners, including the Mat-Su Health Foundation, ConocoPhillips, GCI, and others. Over the years, The Basics supported so many students that success stories started stacking up. A rural Alaska school needed gear to outfit a cross country running team. If they had that gear, they could compete and host the school’s first invitational cross country meet. The Basics provided the team with shoes and the meet was scheduled.
“Being able to put on a meet has immediate and long-term benefits for youth, their families and communities,” said Kayla Williamson, who worked with The Basics.
An Alaska wrestling team had enough students to compete, but they couldn’t afford the gear. The team was from a Title 1 high school, which means the school serves a high percentage of students from families with lower incomes. The Basics provided wrestling shoes and gear to the team.
“The team went on to win the state championship,” Williamson said.
Winning a championship is success enough, but Williamson said that win can lead to other wins for student athletes. It could improve their chances of earning a scholarship for college, building healthy habits and simply boosting confidence.
In recent years, The Basics faced challenges staffing its volunteer board. Skogstad and board member Rick Hansen looked for a way to continue the work through another organization.
“I couldn’t just walk away from the need,” Skogstad said.
Hansen helped connect Skogstad with Healthy Futures. Harlow Robinson, executive director for Healthy Futures and the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, worked with board members to take over the role of The Basics, believing it fit with the Healthy Futures mission to make it easier for all Alaska children to build the healthy habit of daily physical activity. Then Healthy Futures hired Williamson, who had worked with The Basics and would now oversee the Game Changer program for Healthy Futures.
How to apply
Healthy Futures considers Game Changer applications throughout the year. Any adult can apply — a teacher, principal, coach, nurse, or parent — but the scholarship must go toward helping a child ages 5–18. Each request must be $500 or less, Williamson said.
Adults fill out application forms online, which are then considered by a small group that includes a Healthy Futures staff member, a board member of Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, and a representative from Healthy Futures’s partner on the project – Alaska’s News Source. Each application includes a brief summary of the need, how the scholarship will be used, and academic accomplishments for the students involved. Needs can vary, which means one application may ask for covering the cost of a bus trip to a cross country running meet, and another may ask for help flying a sports team to a competition they otherwise couldn’t afford to attend. Applications could request help to pay for a student to take a class that builds their skills in a physical activity, or could request gear, like shoes and other clothing.
Sometimes, just one pair of shoes is all it takes to open up possibilities.