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Access to safe, inclusive sport enriches the lives of youth in multiple ways. For young people facing barriers, the mentorship, friendships, access to physical activity, and support is especially valuable. Maple Leaf Sport and Entertainment’s LaunchPad is designed to create safe spaces for young people to gather, play and connect. Researchers Dr. Lyndsay Hayhurst (York University); Dr. Francine Darroch (Carleton University); Julia Ferreira Gomes (York University); and Marika Warner (Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment LaunchPad) are spearheading an E-Alliance-funded project that is examining how LaunchPad supports gender diverse youth, women, and girls who have experienced gender-based violence, specifically the organization’s use of Trauma-and Violence-Informed (TVI) approaches. While the researchers are focused on LaunchPad, their findings could inform policies and practices in youth sport for development programs across Canada.

Located in Toronto’s urban centre of Moss Park, LaunchPad “serves as an ambitious ‘living lab’ to explore and measure how sport can help improve the lives of youth” …. delivering “best-in-class programming that supports our 4 Pillars: Healthy Body, Healthy Mind, Ready for School and Ready for Work.” LaunchPad leaders and coaches work towards this vision guided by an Equity Diversity and Inclusion Policy and a Mental Health Policy.

Ferreira Gomes has been working on the ground at the centre and has interviewed 15 LaunchPad participants, discussing the program and their experiences. “TVI approaches are policies built into an organization that recognize the connections between violence, trauma, negative health outcomes and behaviours,” Ferreira Gomes explains. This intentionally integrated approach increases safety, control and resilience for people seeking services. Through her preliminary work, Ferreira Gomes has found that, like many sport for development organizations, LaunchPad does not yet have such policies embedded in their programs. However, she says much of their work does align with these principles.

“LaunchPad really embodies the idea of creating a safe space, which is a Trauma and Violence Informed approach,” Ferreira Gomes explains. “For example, they offer women-only hours. Also, the region of the city they are in, Moss Park, is so compact and has so much busyness. Participants come into this space, and they can leave all that noise and distraction at the door. They can feel safe.”

Similarly, training about how to navigate gender equity and identity are not a formalized part of the program. But Ferreira Gomes says staff and coaches are committed to supporting the needs of all youth in the program, through conversation and capacity building. “Sport is historically a very binary world,” she points out. This crosses over to sport for development programs. Despite this legacy, Ferreira Gomes says LaunchPad has been effective in responding to the needs of non-binary and trans youth. “For example, in one instance, leaders had conversations with the kids about a peer in transition, their preferred name and the program they wanted to be a part of; they fielded questions and helped to create a welcoming environment.”

While the research team is still working on the project, early findings suggest that youth sport for development programs could become even more impactful by adopting TVI approaches and gender equity policies.

Complementary media: You can listen to a podcast featuring Marika Warner and Julia Ferreira Gomes “Adapting sport-for-development in times of COVID-19: A discussion with Marika Warner, MLSE LaunchPad” here.