Cleveland’s inner-city kids everywhere are waiting for the opportunity to play, and the new organization Keep Playing Cleveland could give them just the equipment they need.
The founder of the fledgling organization, John Carroll University graduate student Daniel Wasnick, was in Los Angeles training for his internship with Coach Across America, part of AmeriCorps, when he dreamed up an organization that would solve an old problem in Cleveland: a lack of sporting equipment for inner-city children.
“I have always wanted to start my own nonprofit,” Wasnick said. “I just thought it would have a little more direct interaction with youth.”
As the organization’s kickoff event on April 5 approaches, Wasnick’s dream is coming closer to reality.
Wasnick’s grand idea was born when he was working with a group from Dallas while in L.A. The organization was planning a program intended to teach urban youths how to play lacrosse.
The problem was money. The group had to ask each participant for $50 for equipment, a steep price to pay for a young child living in the city.
As Wasnick thought more about the topic, he began to wonder if an organization existed to collect used sporting goods and equipment, which it would donate to inner-city sports programs.
Wasnick talked to many of his colleagues in the Coach Across America program. Not one had heard of an such an organization.
“I have worked with kids for 14 of my 26 years and with the inner city population for eight years,” Wasnick said. “One of the biggest struggles was we just didn’t have the funds to get 12 baseball mitts and bats and everything else. It’s just a lot of basketball and football because they are sports with minimum equipment.”
So Wasnick took his idea back home. The first-year JCU graduate student proposed the idea to his communication class, taught by Janice Small.
Both his professor and classmates loved the idea.
Laura Heaton, Chetan Kapoor and Tia Pearson joined the cause and became the organization’s board of advisors, helping Wasnick hammer out the details. Keep Playing Cleveland will focus on Cuyahoga County, relying on recreation centers and local schools as location points for collecting equipment from community members and athletes.
The first step in officially founding Keep Playing Cleveland was securing a solid financial backing.
“We worked on getting a fiscal sponsor instead of filing to become our own nonprofit, which causes a fee, board of directors, by-laws, etc.,” Wasnick said. “We just go under the umbrella of another organization. We found the Cleveland Police Athletic League.”
Associating the organization with Cleveland PAL makes Keep Playing Cleveland a 501(c)(3) organization, which according to the IRS, is often referred to as a “charitable organization.” The move will spare Wasnick and his colleagues many headaches.
“They handle all of our accounting and they more or less have say in how we spend all our funds,” Wasnick said. “We use them for their tax-exempt status and they more or less give us the autonomy to do as we please with our funds. We’re going to be in contact with them and talk to them about everything.”
The move will eventually help when Keep Playing Cleveland looks for funding from grants and foundations.
The organization will be spared debilitating growing pains a young nonprofit often undergoes.
“When we apply for grants and funding, we will be seen as the Cleveland Police Athletic League, a foundation that’s been around for 75 yearsthat you know and trust, not this new organization,” Wasnick said. “Plus, they will help with guidance and everything else we need as we grow as a nonprofit.”
The next step for Keep Playing Cleveland was approaching local recreation centers and high schools, asking if they would allow Keep Playing Cleveland to place bins in their facilities.
“Everywhere I went, people said, ‘I’ve never heard of a program like this; we would be willing to participate, I’m sure our students would be willing to participate,’” Wasnick said.
Wasnick and Pearson met with JCU’s Assistant Athletic Director for External Operations, Jane Evans, and Director of Recreation and Intramurals, Courtney Farver, last week. While no plans are set in stone, Keep Playing Cleveland and JCU could soon have a working partnership.
“John Carroll could be a part of that visibly,” Evans said. “We could develop an arrangement that any used equipment could be donated from the varsity sports side, club sports and recreational angles.
“I think one of the points of pride of John Carroll [is] a commitment to the underprivileged and underserviced youth in athletics. We’re happy to support that nonprofit. I don’t know exactly what the next steps will be. I’m going to get the equipment managers on board and try to communicate with them everything they gave us.”
Having played both hockey and baseball in high school, Wasnick knows high school athletes and families would be open to the idea, too.
“I know a lot of people, my family included, who always had a lot of basketballs, baseballs and soccer cleats just collecting dust,” Wasnick said. “I went to University School; my teammates and I had new bats, new gloves, new cleats every time, every year.”
The final step for Keep Playing Cleveland was planning the official kickoff event on Saturday, April 5 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Keep Playing Cleveland will place bins at 10 locations across the area. Members of Keep Playing Cleveland will then collect the donated materials at the end of the drive. They will then transport the materials to the Green Road Annex, where Wasnick’s team will organize the equipment before cleaning and sanitizing everything.
“I am excited to see the first group of kids in April receive their softball mitts or basketballs,” Heaton said.
From there, Keep Playing Cleveland will focus on finding a proper home for the equipment. Wasnick insists that the materials will not go to a free-play program, but a program with strong, structured activities.
“They’ll be going through a small application process on our website,” Wasnick said. “Just to show us how they’re going to use the equipment, to make sure they’re using it in a structured format.
“We’re not really looking to give organizations recess or free play equipment. We want them to say, ‘This is badminton. Here are the rules, let’s practice our serves, let’s practice our returns and play a little bit.”
Once Keep Playing Cleveland completes its first collection, the organization hopes to work out the kinks and eventually expand the program.
“Hopefully this is something we can spread to other cities and communities throughout the area,” Wasnick said. “It’s a goal of ours to have Keep Playing Detroit, Keep Playing Pittsburgh and expand it as far as we can. Maybe one day from now we have Keep Playing Canada, etc.”
Keep Playing Cleveland is still in the infant stages of its development, but Wasnick and his team have a solid foundation in place.
“I think what’s he’s doing is outstanding and fills a void,” Evans said.
To get involved with Keep Playing Cleveland, check them out on Facebook at facebook.com/KeepPlayingCleveland. Wasnick said they are always looking for volunteers. The organization will also be starting its online fundraiser today, Thursday, Jan. 30.