FORT LEE, Va. (Feb. 16, 2012) -- Youth athletes aged 12-15 (and their parents) take notice! Chesterfield County kids have been participating in the International Children's Games since 2004 and now youngsters affiliated with Fort Lee have the same opportunity. 

Athletes whose parents work or live on Fort Lee, including Department of Defense Civilians, are eligible to apply to compete in track and field, swimming or tennis representing Team Chesterfield during the ICG in Daegu, Korea, later this year.

Spurred by his World War II childhood sacrifices, Slovenian sports instructor Metod Klemenc wanted to create a better world based on friendship. He saw sports as the best means to bring together young people from different cultures. Klemenc is credited with organizing the first International Children's Games in June of 1968. Nine towns from Eastern Europe participated and encouraged organizers to host games in Italy in 1970. Since then, more than 50 cities in Europe, North American and Asia have hosted summer and winter games. Teacher, coach, former child athlete and military spouse Gretchen Simard learned about the games in 2004 when the international event was first held in the U.S.

"As a gymnastics coach and a parent of athletes, I was intrigued with the possibility of an international competition for kids," Simard said. "I ventured to Cleveland and discovered an experience that far exceeded anything I had participated in as a youth gymnast competing in U.S. Nationals, NCAA Nationals and Big Ten Championships."

Simard described the event as an Olympic-like experience.

"There is a lighting of a torch, the raising of the International Children's Game Flag and a parade of athletes," she said. "The athletes live in a village similar to the Olympic Village and are given the opportunity to meet other children from hundreds of cities around the world."

Simard's daughter Ashley was the first student to represent Team Chesterfield at the games.

"Like most military kids, she had a pioneering spirit," Simard said. "She enjoyed her experiences so much she continues to volunteer with Team Chesterfield. It was also a benefit to her when she began to apply for colleges. All three of my children used their experiences in the games as the subject of their college essays."

Simard said she knows how difficult being a military child can be and how they often miss out on opportunities that civilian students may have.

"Last year, the Team Chesterfield board of directors voted to include all youth whose parents work or live on a military installation within 20 miles of Chesterfield County," she said. "This qualifies Fort Lee youth to apply to participate as part of Team Chesterfield, along with any student who lives, attends school or trains at an athletic facility in Chesterfield County."

The Chesterfield non-profit organization is looking for athletes who excel in the sports of swimming, track and field, and tennis to field its team and travel to Korea. There is also a spot for a soccer team; however, a coach and seven players must apply together. Students who apply are evaluated on their athletic ability, their academics and their citizenship (i.e., volunteerism, sportsmanship and recommendations). Simard said they select model students to be their international ambassadors. "Learning about other cultures and having an experience like this is one of the most valuable experiences a student can have," Simard said. "Many young athletes dream of making it to the Olympics. Participating in the International Children's Games makes it possible for 20 students from the greater Chesterfield County area to have an experience very similar."

Military youth runner Sadie Sandifer participated in the 2011 summer games held in Lanarkshire, Scotland.

"I absolutely enjoyed the experience and meeting children from all over the world," Sadie said.

Sadie's mother, Tammy Sandier said the education her daughter received was excellent.

"I loved the learning experience she received and how much she grew (as a runner) from the pressures and stages she competed in," Tammy said. "I think she can rely on what she learned in future races and obstacles."

Simard said the experience can be expensive but the organization works hard to keep it affordable for all qualified athletes.

"Students must raise $2800 for their trip to the games this year," she said.

Team Chesterfield's sponsors have given each of the athletes $250 to offset their costs. Additional scholarships from $500 to $2,000 are available based on need and athleticism. Several fund raising events are sponsored by Team Chesterfield including a silent auction and an annual fun run. The final deadline to apply for the 2012 games is fast approaching. A parents' meeting will be held Feb. 26, the last day to apply.

To register for the meeting, e-mail teamchesterfield@comcast.net or gsimard@teamchesterfield.org.

For more information or to apply for Team Chesterfield, visit www.teamchesterfield.org.