As the city that played home to Babe Ruth’s early love affair with the home run, to the prominence of the Dunbar Poets basketball teams several decades later, Baltimore has a storied history of youth involvement in sports and other physical activities. But recent trends indicate a shortage of organized athletic enrichment opportunities. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, athletic participation for kids ages 6 through 12 declined 8 percent nationally in the last decade, and only 21 percent of Baltimore high school students meet the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendation of 60 minutes of daily physical activity. The recreational leagues that prospered in the latter half of the 20th century have dwindled, and youth from low-income families, particularly those younger than high school age, are left to rely on a limited number of sports offered by Baltimore City Public Schools, the Department of Recreation and Parks, nonprofit groups, or private providers that often charge a fee and have few spots.
The need for more physical activity programs could not be more clear. According to the Urban Health Institute, more than 37 percent of Baltimore high school students are obese or overweight, and the National Institutes of Health report that up to 80 percent of these obese adolescents will become obese adults, indicating an urgent need for effective intervention during childhood.
Barriers to participation in structured athletic programs are primarily associated with cost, including enrollment fees, equipment, transportation, and training. For many low-income families, these expenses are unbearable. Recognizing this need, Leveling the Playing Field (LPF) has developed an innovative model that attempts to assuage the cost burden faced by low-income families, while also encouraging lower league fees and higher enrollment.
LPF distributes new and used donated equipment free of charge to schools, afterschool programs, and neighborhood leagues. Since 2011, LPF has donated over $2.75 million worth of sporting equipment to over 450 programs in the Maryland, D.C., and Virginia metropolitan areas. The Abell Foundation was the first Baltimore-based funder to support LPF’s work as it sought to expand into Baltimore with two $5,000 grants awarded in 2015.
In partnering with LPF, the organizations receiving the equipment must agree to:
- Reallocate saved funds to expand their athletics program enrollment (75 percent of Baltimore partners reported doing so in 2017); and/or
- Reallocate saved funds to enhance existing programming, develop new sports options, and/or directly make their programs more affordable (80 percent of Baltimore partners reported doing so in 2017).
LPF operations have expanded considerably, as per the recent sevenfold increase in Baltimore-based partnerships to 75. In light of this growth, the Abell Foundation awarded LPF a $20,000 grant in September 2016 in support of its Baltimore expansion. In 2017, LPF distributed sporting equipment worth $274,912 that benefitted up to 12,734 Baltimore City youth enrolled with partner programs.
Some LPF partners include organizations the Abell Foundation has supported over the years; for example:
- Next One Up provides young men with mentoring, academic enrichment, and athletic activities through weekend skills trainings and recreation, and summer sports camps for young men in middle school and high school. In 2017, Next One Up saved $2,525 worth of equipment expenses, benefitting 50 youth.
- Play on Purpose (POP) provides after-school and summer leadership development, academic enrichment, athletic development, and college exposure programming to student athletes in middle school and high school. In 2017, POP saved $9,835 in equipment that benefitted 60 youth.
- Parks & People Foundation provides after-school athletic sports leagues to middle school students, in addition to environmental learning and stewardship to elementary school students, and green careers employment experience to high school students. In 2017, Parks & People saved $6,505 in equipment that benefitted 150 youth.
In December 2017, LPF signed on to open a 4,000-square-foot warehouse space in the Woodberry neighborhood with the Baltimore Collaborative Warehouse. The Collaborative is a partnership comprised of several organizations that have agreed to share 25,000 square feet of warehouse space. This will be LPF’s second physical location, and its first in Baltimore, which will be used to administer all Baltimore-area operations. The facility will be staffed by a newly hired program manager and is expected to allow LPF to reach and engage more local volunteers, connect with local donors, and operate more efficiently to better serve Baltimore youth for years to come.
Information published in July 2018.