After-school chess plays well in Ferguson

Ascension Health brings chess program to 20 schools and enlists three grandmasters for kick-off event.

After-school chess plays well in Ferguson

Company: Ascension Health
Campaign: Bringing After-School Chess to Ferguson School District
Duration: September 1 - December 15, 2015
Budget: Approximately $50,000

Ascension Health made national news in Ferguson, Missouri, bringing an after-school chess program to 20 elementary and middle schools in the Ferguson school district.

Ascension Health, the largest non-profit healthcare system in the US, is headquartered in the St. Louis area and leveraged partnerships with the Ferguson-Florissant school districts and the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis to bring a 10-week chess club to students.

The chess program came at no cost to participating students or the schools involved, overcoming a primary obstacle many children face when it comes to participation in extracurricular activities. Ascension was able to bring certified chess instructors to the after-school chess clubs, including appearances from three grandmasters of chess, the game's highest honorable title.

The idea of the program began with Nick Ragone, SVP and chief communications and marketing officer at Ascension.

"The campaign came about when my 10-year-old son, Frankie, asked me if all the schools in St. Louis had a chess club," explains Ragone. "I made a call to the St. Louis Chess Club, and they mentioned that the Ferguson school district wanted to bring after-school chess to their 20 middle and elementary schools, but didn’t have the budget.  So I quickly came up with the idea of sponsoring a chess club for those 20 schools and within 48 hours the program was put together."

The company had been looking for a chance to become more engaged with the community and the program was endorsed by Ascension CEO Tony Tersigni.

The school superintendent for the Ferguson district, Dr. Joseph Davis, also quickly endorsed the program.

The basic strategy of the after-school chess program revolved around creating partnerships with local organizations that would help facilitate the event. Ascension partnered with the St. Louis Chess Club, which provided instructors, chess boards, and other necessary resources to the 20 participating schools.

The strategic partnerships came together within days.

Garnering media attention for the event became a top priority and each organization involved played a specific role in driving awareness. The St. Louis Chess Club handled chess media outlets, while the Ferguson-Florissant school districts reached out to local media.

Ascension Health and agency partner FleishmanHillard helped garner national media attention.

The chess program launched in mid-September at the Walnut Grove Elementary School in Ferguson featuring students aged 9 to 13. The launch also served as a press event where local and national media were invited to cover the inaugural chess club meeting.

The grandmasters in attendance at the press event included Maurice Ashley, who became the first and only African-American grandmaster in 1999. Ashley, along with grandmasters Alejandro Ramirez and Yasser Seirawan, spent the day teaching students how to play chess.

More than 400 students are participating in the after-school chess program, honing decision-making skills while learning the game from some of the top players in the US.

The after-school chess programs Ascension helped create became a positive, inspiring story for local and national media to share from the embattled community in Ferguson.

The chess program receiving local broadcast coverage from three major affiliate stations, as well as national print coverage from the Associated Press.

The story also received national and local radio coverage, including a spot on National Public Radio. Other notable coverage included the Huffington Post, Washington Times, and scores of other media outlets.

Ascension Health operates in 24 states and the District of Columbia and is hoping to expand the after-school chess programs to other areas of the country.

"It’s a great partnership in our communities and we’re looking at expanding it next year," says Ragone.

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