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Small Boston nonprofit wins prestigious youth sports award

In true underdog fashion, a tiny Boston-based nonprofit beat out several large, nationally recognized organizations to win an award for fostering healthier communities through sports.

Doc Wayne Youth Services will collect $5,000 for winning the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Sports Award, which recognizes nonprofits dedicated to “creating a culture of health” in their communities.

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Doc Wayne won the inaugural award along with the Tony Hawk Foundation, which provides safe places for youths to skateboard, and Chicago Fire Foundation, a charitable arm of the Chicago Fire Major League Soccer team.

Doc Wayne takes a different approach to therapy by bringing together youths with mental health problems to play team sports, according to David Cohen, executive director of the organization.

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“We’re challenging the norm of traditional talk therapy, and we use sports as a vehicle,” Cohen said. “The hard thing is, there are so many kids in need. This is a wonderful opportunity and we’re excited about the recognition.”

The organization focuses on low-income youths between the ages of 6 and 18. All of the participants have experienced some form of neglect, abuse, violent crime, or sexual trafficking.

“It’s a very inclusive and supportive environment,” Cohen said. “No one kid is more important than the other.”

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Group therapy sessions with Doc Wayne are facilitated by trained, therapeutic coaches and run in seven-week blocks.

The youths meet weekly and move between different team sports, including basketball, soccer, and flag football, Cohen said.

According to the group’s website, Doc Wayne Youth Services was founded in 2002 in memory of Eli “Doc’’ Wayne, a pediatric surgeon who was active in youth sports.

Doc Wayne Youth Services sees as many as 100 young people a week, and the small but dedicated staff is having trouble keeping up with increasing demand, Cohen said. He hopes that with funds and recognition from the Johnson Foundation, the group can continue to expand throughout Greater Boston.

“You know, I talk about the mental health and the trauma space, and it’s a space that’s uncomfortable for many,” Cohen said. “We’re at the cusp of it being more educated and talking about it as a community, and I think our program can really help with that.”

Sarah Roberts can be reached at sarah.roberts@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @heysarahroberts.
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