by Michelle DeRusha
Sports can positively impact youth development by helping children build confidence, grow in their teamwork and leadership skills and foster healthy social connections, all while having fun and getting exercise.
The challenge, however, for many families—particularly low-income or single-parent households—is the cost can be prohibitive. According to research conducted by the Aspen Institute, the average cost for participating in a youth sport is nearly $700 per child, per sport, per year. Depending on the sport and the league, fees and expenses can exceed $2,000.
The Lincoln, Neb., Corps’ Small Fry Basketball Program, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2020, offers an alternative, providing 300 children in grades three through seven the opportunity to play on a competitive team without putting a financial strain on their families. The Small Fry season costs just $20 for third through fifth graders and $40 for the varsity league (fifth through seventh graders)—a fraction of what other competitive leagues charge.
“One of the great things about Small Fry is that it’s accessible to every kid from every corner of town,” said Lincoln Corps Community Center Director Matthew Drommond, who is a Small Fry alumnus himself. Matthew participated in the league 20 years ago, after which he played high school and college basketball.
“Youth from all walks of life are brought together on the basketball court,” added Major Mark Anderson, corps officer at the Lincoln Corps. “Hundreds of coaches and kids have built friendships and community through the Small Fry program over the past 60 years.”
Jessie Fries, principal of Lefler Middle School in Lincoln, is another Small Fry alumna. Her brother also played, and her father coached in the program for 35 years until his death in 2017.
“As the principal of a Title One school, I am particularly grateful that The Salvation Army makes competitive basketball accessible for a wide range of families,” said Jessie, whose two older children participated in Small Fry; her stepson currently plays on one of the 19 Small Fry teams.
“As a mom, I love that Small Fry offers a diverse setting,” she added. “It’s a good representative of what Lincoln is and what the world looks like. I appreciate that.”
Over its six decades, the Small Fry basketball program has produced an impressive roster of alumni, including former Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, former Kansas City Royals All-Star Alex Gordon and several University of Nebraska basketball, football and baseball players.
Hank Davis, who has coached Small Fry for 35 years and who also played as a kid, said the best part about the program is its inclusivity. “No one is excluded,” he said. “Anyone who wants to play can play.”
Thanks to a generous donor, the Lincoln Corps has renovated the basketball court and the gym, but the colors (blue, red and gold) and décor still look much like they did when the program was founded in 1960.