Western New York summers are a time to be outside, to shake off the dust of the colder months spent indoors and enjoy all the geographic amenities the region has to offer.

But on many streets throughout the City of Buffalo, organized outdoor activities can be scarce, and the region’s most pristine season can pass without the fun in the sun it is meant to elicit.  

To answer this need, the Buffalo Police Athletic League initiated PLAYSTREETS, a year-round program that travels to designated neighborhoods throughout the Queen City and provides free sports clinics, equipment for games like flag football and tennis, and healthy snacks to power kids through their days. Launched in 2020 and presented by Independent Health, it offers kids—many considered at-risk—an opportunity to stay active while eliminating practical barriers to participation, like cost, organization, and transportation.

“We go from neighborhood to neighborhood, street to street, and give out sporting equipment,” says Nekia Kemp, executive director of the Buffalo PAL. “This gets kids to come outside, get moving, and play such things as community kickball games and other sports with police officers, in the safety of their own neighborhood.”

But the program—modeled after the New York City PAL PLAYSTREETS Program, which has been in existence throughout Manhattan since the early 1900s—isn’t just about playing; it is much more multifaceted than that. Both the PAL and Independent Health know that building and sustaining healthy communities needs more than exercise and nutritious food. It requires connections and trust between residents, law enforcement and community leaders. Each can strengthen the foundation of a neighborhood, and can push building toward bigger things from possibility to reality.

“We’ve served thousands of kids in the City of Buffalo, across racial lines, across socioeconomic lines. And with the support of Independent Health, we’ve been able to bridge the gap between community and police officers.”

Nekia Kemp, Executive Director, Buffalo Police Athletic League

Each session features Buffalo PAL staff and coaches—along with police officers from the Buffalo Police Department’s Neighborhood Engagement Team (BPD NET)—engaged in neighborhood-hosted games or leading fitness challenges with local participants. Block by block, these activities have provided an opportunity to foster positive relationships with peers, PAL staff and Buffalo police officers, and bring each PLAYSTREETS community closer together.

According to a survey of family participants conducted in 2022, 100% agreed that they had positive interaction with members of the Buffalo PAL while engaging in PLAYSTREETS activities, and were very satisfied with the program. 85% of respondents also reported a positive impact on their children’s academic skills and confidence as students once away from the program’s neighborhood games.

This is not only a testament to the connection between positive physical activity and mental acuity. It’s also a byproduct of the trust built between organizers and participants. According to Kemp, this is made possible by PLAYSTREETS volunteers committed to their communities, and their ability to command respect through their experience and relatability.      

“Many of our volunteers look like the kids that we serve,” says Kemp. “When kids see someone who looks [relatable] and comes from their community, telling them about things they can do to improve their health, they’re more likely to listen.”

This model of programming aligns with the vision of Independent Health to support healthy, diverse communities.

“It’s easier to make healthy choices when healthy choices are easily available in your neighborhood,” said Michael W. Cropp, M.D., president & CEO, Independent Health. “It’s the way our Independent Health Foundation approaches its work, bringing programs like Good for the Neighborhood, Soccer for Success, Fitness for Kids Challenge and Healthy Options at Home directly to areas that need the helping hand.

“PLAYSTREETS follows a similar mode – bringing programing into neighborhoods. As a company deeply rooted in and committed to Western New York, we know from experience that relationship building and trust are cornerstones of building healthy communities. Working with PAL is part of Independent Health’s commitment to improving the health and well-being of the community.”

Forming this bond between neighborhood residents and leaders makes these types of healthy lessons possible. Throughout this summer—day by day, rain or shine—PLAYSTREETS will continue to support and guide its participants, one game at a time.