AFHK Parent Ambassador Creates Physical Activity Opportunities for Youth in Low-resource Florida Communities
Action for Healthy Kids Parent Ambassador Colleen Gonzalez witnessed the power of connecting youth with positive mentors and made it a mission to build and foster positive relationships with kids in low-resource communities.
Colleen’s husband Luis Gonzalez, a former K9 police officer, first inspired Colleen. The highlight of Luis’s day was starting his shift with his dog Tico and visiting local subsidized housing to provide tennis balls to the kids. He would tell Colleen about the positive interactions and took her for a “ride along” to see the results first-hand. “As we approached, the dog woke and immediately knew where he was. The kids greeted my husband like a rock star and would say, ‘Hi Officer Tico!’” Colleen recounts. “The kids knew what to do – they made a line and waited to toss the frisbee or ball. Luis would toss the frisbee, and the kids would race Tico to see who was fastest. In the end, kids made a positive connection with a trusted adult, got to run and play, received a tennis ball, and left knowing ‘Officer Tico’ told them to be good, that he would be back, and that he cared about each of them. From that point on, if I could find a ball or frisbee, I made sure to buy it for the patrol car.”
In 2012, Colleen wanted to restore youth faith in trusted adults like law enforcement officers, specifically with older teens. She also wanted to increase opportunities for youth in her community to be physically active. Many students were homeless or had limited resources, especially teenagers. Providing these students a ball was a simple way to fulfill a basic need. Basketballs in particular were special. Kids could play solo or with a family member, use them at most parks, or bounce it anywhere, creating a rhythm to help calm and relax themselves.
Through the nonprofit GROW Central Florida, Inc. that Colleen founded in 2015, she maintains active relationships with the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office and School Safety Division to promote environments that support increased opportunities for physical activity and healthy living for Central Florida school children. Inspired by her husband’s experience, Colleen collected balls from the community and used local law enforcement agencies to distribute them over the summer. Since 2018, the deputies and officers have distributed over 1,400 balls to community children in need.
From there it grew, starting with a deputy checking on a child not attending school because they do not have shoes, to working on supplying shoes to 20 kids in need. Deputies began participating in playground revitalization projects and facilitating team-building events at high-need schools in the district.
When COVID-19 hit, Colleen realized resources would be even more important, so she reached out to community partners including the Orlando Magic of the NBA and Orlando City Soccer Club of the MLS to address the need. School Resource Deputies began distributing donated balls along with school lunches to youth in subsidized low-resource communities to ensure kids stay healthy and physically active, especially those kids who were not able to pick up food from the schools.