Running and reading combined in northern Utah refugee support group

(Eli Lucero | The Herald Journal via AP) In this Sept. 11, 2019, photo Salman Yusuf, second from left, and others run laps on the field at Ellis Elementary School in Logan, Utah. Yusuf, who is a refugee from Somalia, is one of many kids who participate in the after school running club.

Logan, Utah • Running and reading go hand in hand in a northern Utah nonprofit aimed at helping refugees learn English while developing a love for athletics.

Athletics United was launched three years ago as a running club and evolved to include two nights per week of tutoring, said founders Mike and Kristi Spence of Logan. They created the group with friend Glynn Hadley to create a safe space for the children to make friends and learn English.

"We didn't know exactly what form that would take," Mike Spence said. "We just knew if you created a positive, safe atmosphere, we could put people together, use running as an ice breaker and then start to get to know one another and then see where it took us from there. It has been really, really great."

Yanet Sandi, an eighth grader, has been in the club since its inception and said she loves the coaches and volunteers.

"They support us even when we don't try our best," Sandi said. "It is comfortable. We know them, and they understand you, where you have been or if you are having a hard time with English."

The group founders all have longtime experience with the sport of running. Mike Spence is a former Utah State University track and field assistant head coach. Hadley and Kristi Spence are lifelong distance runners.

Combining sports with learning allows the Spences to connect with refugee children more closely than if they just tutored them, said Vidalia Cornwall, president of the "No Lost Generation" refugee support group.

“The opportunity to interact with the kids in a more open environment at the running practice is really cool,” Cornwall said. “Then they don’t just see you as a tutor.”

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