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Kimberly Clay finds solace in running Play Like a Girl

From passion project to nonprofit organization

Kimberly Clay decided early that defeat was not something for which she’d settle. She just happened to be the overweight kid in her family growing up in rural Mississippi. At that time and place, sports weren’t a priority for girls. In fact, they weren’t available.

She did know that someday she’d have to do something to combat her weight issues.

“I’ve always had a present awareness or consciousness about my weight. Even as I’ve pursued and exceeded in so many other areas of my life, it was always that one thing that I felt I could not personally overcome,” Clay said.

As Clay moved forward, her personal struggles shed light on an epidemic that plagues many young girls — childhood obesity. It also ignited a passion to create a healthy and active lifestyle approach for not just herself, but for all women and girls.

“So as a student pursuing my Ph.D., I had an opportunity to launch a project and it happened to have been Play Like a Girl. It’s evolved since then of course into a nonprofit and has really fueled my own personal contentment with who I am, my love for myself, my confidence in myself,” Clay said.

“It also has fueled my ability to give back to the community in the way that I wish I had someone or some organization to give back to me as a child.”

Now Clay holds a doctorate in health education, and master’s degrees in public health and social work. Before becoming the founder and executive director of Play Like a Girl in 2004, she was a health adviser for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Kim Clay is the founder and executive director of Play Like a Girl, a resource to inspire girls to live a happier, healthier and more active lifestyle by promoting physical activity. Courtesy of Kim Clay / Toyota

Kimberly Clay is the founder and executive director of Play Like a Girl, a resource to inspire girls to live a happier, healthier and more active lifestyle by promoting physical activity. Courtesy of Kimberly Clay / Toyota

Courtesy of Kim Clay / Toyota

Play Like a Girl had been the name of an after-school program Clay once ran. And she decided to use it again after advice from a colleague who told her the original name didn’t resonate in the community. When asked the prior name, Clay laughed and said she won’t mention it.

“It just hit me,” she said. “Why not resurrect or erect the name of the after-school program as our public facing. The name Play Like a Girl really embodied the work we were doing at the time.”

According to its website, Play Like a Girl is a hip, innovative and inspiring resource for women’s and girls’ health, powered by passionate women volunteers, a creative online network, targeted community outreach and live events.

Since its inception, the nonprofit has helped more than 10,000 girls and women.

“We stopped counting after that,” Clay said. “If we can merely get girls moving, we can set them on the right path to regular physical activity and healthy lifestyle.”

Play Like a Girl started as a means to fight poor nutrition and lack of physical activity for girls. But in 2014, ESPN recognized Clay for the work her organization did through a tennis program. That was when she acknowledged her work as a sports organization.

Clay’s primary program under the organization is Sporty Girls. It was originally funded through the philanthropic efforts of NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith and his wife, Pat.

“It is intended to introduce sports to girls grades five through eight with the intention that if we help girls find their spark in physical activity and sports they will find a passion and then continue with those sports and or physical activity into middle school or beyond,” Clay explained.

“Our work is squarely focused on using physical activity and sports as a conduit to getting individuals to adopt a healthy lifestyle and ultimately end this war on us as a community of people of color because individuals of color are the most impacted.”

As Play Like a Girl began to expand rapidly, Clay started a club program that offers girls the opportunity to establish satellite organizations on college campuses.

“We now have presence in the U.S. and in Canada,” Clay said.

Her family history predestined her to chronic diseases. Her father died after suffering multiple heart attacks and strokes. Her brother died of childhood cancer. She never let any of this discourage her from pursuing the fight against childhood obesity.

“My childhood really has fueled my passion for the work I do with Play Like a Girl,” Clay said.

Kelley Evans is a general editor at The Undefeated. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.