PowerUp! Olympics offer growth for children facing adversity

April 10, 2019
Ryan Imondi

For 10 weeks, kids in Children’s Institute’s PowerUp! after-school program were introduced to the Olympic Games to learn about other cultures while developing team building skills. As the kids wrapped up the curriculum and reflected on their experience, many felt they had learned a lot while also having fun in the process.

“Because of the Olympics, we’ve learned about partnership and sportsmanship,” said Arleni, 10 year-old while Bryan, an 11-year-old, said, “It’s the best program. I want to stay forever.”

This enthusiasm was on display last week at CII’s Otis Booth Campus as the kids showcased their knowledge and celebrated the previous day’s Olympic Games. More than 100 families and community members cheered as the kids represented their assigned nations of China, Egypt, Greece and Mexico. Dressed in clothing that reflected their respective countries, the kids took to the stage and presented aspects of culture through dance. The day before, they had competed in relay races, balloon tosses, and a basketball shoot-off. At the end of the ceremony, they smiled with pride as they received participation medals for their hard work.

Children facing adversity helped through CII

In early January though, this celebratory atmosphere wasn’t on display when the kids learned they were going to spend their entire winter on the Olympics.

Nawal Salim, Experiential Learning Manager who created weekly lesson plans for the Olympics curriculum, said it was mostly groans and complaints when the kids first heard about the concept for the Olympics. She said they weren’t in favor of being placed into groups where they could not select their country or teammates.

The PowerUp! after-school program works with children who have been exposed to trauma and encourages them to learn from a variety of activities and processes – and then asks them to reflect on what they’ve learned in order to build resilience and continue the healing process. Until the Olympics, the kids had never done curriculum that would last multiple months and cover so many different areas.

Supporting kids facing trauma CII

PowerUp! normally has two different groups of kids who attend the program twice weekly on different days. The kids split time between completing homework and taking part in what the staff call a daily enrichment activity. These activities have included practicing yoga, programming robots, art and nutrition classes, or making their own hip hop beats.

To adjust for the lukewarm attitudes toward the Olympics, Salim said they spent the first few weeks focusing solely on team building activities and exercises that promoted the positives of each country participating in the Olympics.

“It probably wasn’t until the third week that they understood why we were doing this,” Salim said.

Mary Brougher, Director of Experiential Learning & Volunteer Services, developed the core curriculum for the Olympics and understood kids may not understand its importance right away. She had implemented the Olympics at other organizations and encountered similar challenges.


From learning what it means to be part of a team to signing up for the final games, they have immersed themselves in the lessons and activities, and have enjoyed seeing it all come together in such a magical way.


Stephanie Argueta, Program Supervisor in PowerUp!

For PowerUp!, the program encourages academic success, increased physical activity, and improved social skills. Brougher said the Olympics are the perfect vehicle for promoting all three of these areas. She said kids usually come around and eventually appreciate the education and life lessons that the Olympics can offer.

“The reason why I selected the Olympics is because it is multifaceted,” she said. “We’re trying to promote cultural tolerance, team work, healthy lifestyle choices and much more.”

Similar to the real Olympics, many of the activities revolved around athletic competitions that promoted mobility and teamwork. But unlike the real Olympics, Brougher’s version pulls from various subjects like art, history and culture and even food to incorporate academics and cultural awareness.

CII helps kids in LA who have experienced trauma

One activity challenged the kids to use creativity and art as they designed costumes and flags for their country. Another involved geography as the kids learned about their country’s different regions.

Stephanie Argueta, Program Supervisor in PowerUp!, said she was amazed by the Olympics and the positive response from the kids. Argueta, who was one of the many PowerUp! staff implementing the Olympic curriculum for the first time, said it exceeded her expectations for aligning with the program’s goals.

“From learning what it means to be part of a team to signing up for the final games, they have immersed themselves in the lessons and activities, and have enjoyed seeing it all come together in such a magical way,” she said.

While the kids have now returned to their regular weekly schedules of homework followed by stand-alone enrichment activities, the Olympics appears to have added to the ongoing success of PowerUp! while highlighting the importance of after school programs and how they can support the kid’s individual needs.


The reason why I selected the Olympics is because it is multifaceted,” she said. “We’re trying to promote cultural tolerance, team work, healthy lifestyle choices and much more.


Mary Brougher, Director of Experiential Learning & Volunteer Services

From a recent report that surveyed families who have kids in PowerUp!, 95 percent reported their child was doing better in school as a result of the program and 94 percent reported their child is better at handling daily life. Of the kids who ranked low on physical activity when they entered the program, 83 percent reported they had increased daily activity to a healthy level.

Each positive outcome signals to staff that they are achieving program goals of helping kids right now, while setting them on a path for future achievements in life and academics. The program builds a foundation where kids will continue to seek out new ways to learn and grow.

“The whole purpose of this program is skill building and progression,” Salim said.

Ismenia Platero, a parent whose kids have been in PowerUp! for multiple years, said she has seen exactly this type of transformation with her family. At the closing ceremonies, she described a positive change in the ways her sons Jeffrey and Deemar approach academics and wellness.

“The program is so important to our family,” she said. “My sons used to fight a lot and weren’t focused, but now they see the purpose in doing school work and are excited to go to PowerUp! each week.”

Victor, an 8-year-old echoed what many of the kids in the program have said – the program has made a positive impact and he enjoys being a part of the program.

“PowerUp! is so cool because you get to learn about new things and you don’t even have to pay one penny!” he said.