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Not Just Child’s Play

Many of us have memories of playing sports when we were kids, either on organized teams or in pickup games with neighbors. At the time, we simply found it fun, but as adults we know it was necessary: Kids need to play in order to thrive. Play is important for overall health and well-being. Kids who participate in sports are less likely to be obese, more likely to become active adults and more likely to go to college.

But many neighborhoods lack adequate or safe spaces for kids to play. Recreational fields and facilities either do not exist or they are in such disrepair that they are unsafe or unusable. Leading a panel discussion at the Partnership for a Healthier America Summit in 2017, LISC Senior Program Director for Sports & Recreation Beverly Smith noted that this is disproportionately true in lower-income neighborhoods.

Youth football teams play on the refurbished field at Baltimore's DeWees park

A far cry from the jewel-green suburban soccer fields that may spring to mind when we think of youth sports, kids in lower-income communities often have no play spaces at all. Where there are fields, a lack of maintenance results in weeds, litter and uneven surfaces that make running difficult or downright dangerous. Lack of grass cover renders fields muddy in the rain and dusty when dry; inhaling the dust presents an additional health hazard for kids.

In places where there are no facilities, youth teams must travel for games and practices, which is not a viable option for families without cars or extra money for transportation. Youth recreation opportunities therefore become limited to those who can afford to play. And kids who need activity to stay healthy don’t have the chance to get that activity in a safe place

It can be hard to find funding to build or renovate recreational spaces, particularly in neighborhoods that struggle to attract capital. In jurisdictions that are making hard decisions about how to spend public dollars, parks and recreational facilities often lose out. Increasingly, according to Smith, the most effective way to fund such projects is through grants, partnerships, corporate giving, and multi-organization collaboration. For LISC, the answer has been the NFL Grassroots Program, a partnership with the National Football League to build or renovate playing fields in communities in need.

NFL Grassroots in Action
Through the NFL Grassroots program, organizations receive grant funding and technical assistance to renovate or create new playing fields for football and soccer. The program marks its 20th anniversary in 2018. In those 20 years, LISC and the NFL together have renovated or built more than 300 playing fields serving thousands of children and youth in communities from coast to coast. And LISC has not stopped at football. The LISC/ESPN Home Court Program launched in 2016 to help communities finance construction or renovation for basketball courts. This pilot program awarded $25,000 each to upgrade basketball facilities in Charlotte, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and New York City. LISC is now in its third round of Home Court funding, serving six cities.

Young players practice at the DeWees Park field

We recently spoke with LISC Senior Program Director for Sports & Recreation Beverly Smith about what makes the Grassroots Program special. All of the 300-plus fields the NFL Grassroots program has built or renovated over the past 20 years are noteworthy, but a few are particularly memorable for Smith. One project involved renovation of a field in Northeast Baltimore’s DeWees Park, where a dilapidated field served kids in a neighborhood that faced a number of challenges, including drug addiction, crime and poverty. “An elderly neighborhood couple and their sons pulled together a mom-and-pop youth league,” remembers Smith. “All they needed was a new football field to play on.”

An array of partners came together, including LISC; John Hopkins University, which offered free physicals for the players; the Police Athletic League, which had a program at the park; and the local NFL team, the Baltimore Ravens. Everyone pitched in to make the project a success. A contractor that had worked on the Ravens’ field helped refurbish DeWees Park with a new grass field, bleachers and an electronic scoreboard. “He was so excited,” relates Smith, “the field was complete even before we finished the paperwork, and it was beautiful. That was in 2002 and kids are still playing on it today.”

Game time at Jacksonville's Criswell Park field

Another favorite is the Criswell Park project in Jacksonville. This project was locally driven by an all-volunteer community organization. “The playground was ragged,” remembers Smith, “and they had to navigate a lot just to try to get things done and get adequate lighting so they could use it.” With the help of an NFL Grassroots program grant, the Greater Lakeshore Athletic Association was able to leverage additional funding from the city’s Department of parks, Recreation and Entertainment to expand and improve the field and install lighting. With its improved facilities, the youth football program was able to serve nearly 700 players ages five to 15, and an additional 150 kids in the cheerleading program. The community organization’s ability to pull together committed volunteers made this project a success, according to Smith. “To me, the best projects are the ones where everybody is collaborating, everyone who has a stake in that venue: homeowners, parks and rec, [and] the league.”

Today, LISC is continuing the important work of creating quality recreation spaces with RePlay, an initiative in partnership with ESPN and Under Armour. Announced in February 2018, RePlay will help local residents in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Baltimore plan and implement revitalization projects to transform vacant spaces in their communities into safe places for exercise and recreation.

Tackling a Field Renovation in Your Community
What makes for a successful field renovation project? Smith offers several pointers for people interested in creating or renovating a play space in their communities.

Identify the stakeholders
Determine which groups and people have an interest and a stake in the project. Think about your elected officials, parks and recreation department, and the police if there is crime occurring at the site. Engage nearby residents, especially older neighbors who know the people and the history in the community. “In order to have success, you have to be on the ground in the community. Know who the stakeholders are, and that involves everyone, not just the people with the money,” says Smith

The offerings at Jacksonville's Criswell Park include a cheerleading program

Understand everyone’s objectives
Part of assembling the constituency or set of constituencies around your project is understanding what everyone wants from the project. It may seem simple enough: neighborhood parents want a safe and accessible place for kids to play. But other involved parties have their own wants and needs. Potential funders have objectives that your project needs to be able to meet, whether it’s public recognition or building a future fan base for their sport. Elected officials want to hear from residents and the community. Getting your project done while meeting everyone’s objectives (and not alienating anyone!) can be a balancing act, acknowledges Smith, but in the end “it’s really important to understand what the local community wants and needs because they live there.”

Get everyone to the table
The key to moving the project forward is to organize the stakeholders and the information you’ve gathered and develop a plan based on what all the constituents want. This will require a series of meetings and negotiations to get to consensus. Smith cautions that this can sometimes be tricky. “There is always something going on in a group of people. You either have to steer it or stop it.” To do so requires knowing different constituents’ agendas and understanding that some conversations can take place in larger public meetings, while more delicate subjects may need to be discussed with individuals or smaller groups.

Have one institution to lead the effort
Once you have pulled all the constituents of a project together, you will need a key institution that will organize those constituents. Consider who can be the anchor that pulls everyone together. Particularly as you being fundraising for a plan, There will need to be an organization that can act as the fiscal agent for the project, serve as the point of contact for interested funders or stakeholders and convene the different constituencies working on the plan. This can be an existing neighborhood organization or a newly created “friends of the park” group.

Keep practicing presence
Revitalizing recreational spaces can take a long time and a lot of work. Don’t let up as you wait for the plan to be completed or attract funding. Organize events such as park clean-ups and neighborhood gatherings. Invite elected officials and the media in order to “shine a light on the issue and keep it shining.” Once a city council member has expressed support for your project for example, you can keep reminding them of your needs, and thanking them for their promised support. 

Leverage whatever you can
Finally, consider what your assets are and leverage them to your advantage. Neighborhood history, dedicated residents and a prominent location could all be used to bring energy and attention to your project. Do you know someone at the local paper? Is your council member running for re-election? Take a look at what circumstances or connections you can use to generate interest in your plan.

The fields created and refurbished through LISC’s efforts are clearly important to all the stakeholders in their communities. They are used for everything, from football to soccer to kite flying, says Smith. “Sometimes it’s the only field in the neighborhood.” Whatever the kids use play spaces for, the payoff for Smith and her collaborators comes “when I see the little people running around on the field, so happy.”

More resources
Find more information about LISC’s NFL Grassroots grant program, including local examples, in Home Field Advantage.

KaBOOM! offers research and resources, including toolkits for building a playground, taking grassroots action and crafting joint use agreements between schools and municipalities. 

Aspen Institute’s Project Play offers tools including parent checklists and an annual “State of Play” report that covers trends and developments in youth sports participation and shares examples of innovation.

The National Recreation and Park Association paper, “Creative Strategies for Financing Parks and Recreation,” provides a good overview of how such projects have been funded and gives local examples of successful endeavors.

Partnership for a Healthier America’s Active Design Verified initiative recognizes affordable housing communities designed with health and active living, including play spaces, in mind.

Posted in Youth Development, Sports & Recreation

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