updated 8/23/2005 12:03:20 PM ET 2005-08-23T16:03:20

A national summer program that has provided free sports activities, meals and medical exams to low-income children for four decades could be in jeopardy: It has been dropped from the proposed federal budget.

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Lawmakers could still decide to restore the money before the Senate votes on the budget next month, but directors of the National Youth Sports Program are worried.

The program spends about $18 million a year in federal funds and millions more in other donations to offer sports, classes, meals and medical exams to more than 76,000 children, ages 10-16, at some 200 sites across the country.

“It keeps a lot of kids off the streets and puts them into a structured program” said Oree Banks, who directs the program’s day-camps at West Virginia State University. “If it’s eliminated, it’s going to really hurt.”

The day-camps give the children a chance to take swimming lessons and play sports like basketball, flag football and tennis. In West Virginia, a state where more than a quarter of adults are considered obese, the daily activity is important, said Bruce Wilmoth, activities director of the program at West Virginia University.

From fitness to drug abuse prevention
At the same time, the children learn about drug and alcohol abuse prevention, nutrition, personal health and preparing for college and careers, said Gale Wiedow, the program’s national director.

The National Youth Sports Program has been operating for 37 years, but this summer, the House approved a federal budget proposal that doesn’t include funding for it. It also wasn’t in the proposed budget passed by a Senate appropriations subcommittee.

“The White House zeroed out that funding and put very difficult limitations on funding for a number of programs,” said Tom Gavin, a spokesman for Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Gavin said he expects members will try to restore funding for several such programs, though he didn’t know which ones.

Wiedow has been encouraging local program officials to ask their U.S. senators for help.

If federal funding is cut entirely, it won’t necessarily shut the program down, but “it will be very difficult to obtain adequate funds to maintain the program at the current level,” he said.

In addition to receiving federal funds, the programs are supported by their communities. More than $54 million comes from outside the federal government in the form of campus facilities and donated cash, resources and services, including doctors providing free medical exams for the children.

“The National Youth Sports Program helped fill kids’ empty stomachs, fueled their interest in getting a college education, and found a way to make exercise fun, and figured out who needed closer health examinations,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.

“That’s a lot of return on a relatively small federal investment,” he said.

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