The sound of Matthew Howland’s whistle pierces the air on weekday mornings outside Westwood Middle School, cueing hundreds of adolescent athletes and their classmates to begin their workouts.
Some students flip tires and climb obstacles; others run or lift weights. All of them share a common goal: getting into better shape through Howland’s Youth Combine program.
Howland was still teaching at Westwood in 2011 when he developed an athletic combine program to help the school’s competitors train to make the jump to high school sports. It started with training sessions twice a week, but with child obesity on the rise, his program began attracting parents of students from other middle schools who asked if their children could join the workouts. The interest prompted Westwood to withdraw from his teaching job and expand the program. A year later, he wants to see Youth Combine grow even more to benefit students throughout Alachua County.
Howland shifted his program from two days per week and started hosting before- and after-school training sessions five days a week. He still conducts training at Westwood, but his programs are open to students from all schools. He hopes to expand Youth Combine even further over the next three years to draw as many as 400 students from across town. He said it will require additional funding and means of transportation, but it’s for a worthwhile cause.
“We want to empower all youth in Alachua County with the values of hard work, dedication and responsibility through high-intensity athletic training and fitness education,” Howland said, reinforcing Youth Combine’s mission statement.
In the meantime, the students are excited by their own results. Nearly 50 percent of the students enrolled in Youth Combine wouldn’t classify themselves as student-athletes, but all of them have managed to improve their mile times and general fitness levels. In doing so, they are also building friendships around a healthier lifestyle.
“They are already starting to develop the camaraderie where they want to help each other out,” Howland said.
For more information or to register a student in the program, visit www.youthcombine.org.
George Pappas edited this story online.