Kelvin Giles and his wife, Tondrea, wanted to start a baseball program for at-risk children in Richmond, but the kids didn’t have gloves, bats or even baseballs.
With no money for a trip to Dick’s Sporting Goods, they drove a rented van 2 1/2 hours to a Silver Spring, Md., warehouse that they’d heard could help their kids play ball. The warehouse is home to Leveling the Playing Field, a nonprofit organization that collects used equipment from the affluent and passes it on to those in need.
When the couple walked into the 4,000-square-foot space earlier this month, it was nearly a religious experience. In giant boxes and on tall shelves were thousands of baseball bats, soccer balls, hockey skates, cleats, lacrosse sticks, tennis rackets and more. All for free.
“In my mind I’m saying, ‘God, you are faithful,’ ” said Kelvin Giles, who with his wife runs the nonprofit Dynamic Works Program Support. “This is almost unbelievable. You cannot overstate how much this is needed.”
The lack of funding for youth sports has challenged parents, coaches and league officials around the country, especially those in cities and rural areas. Youth sports advocates say budget struggles, pricey equipment and the high cost of elite travel teams are leaving behind children with ability but not cash.
Participation rates in baseball, hockey, lacrosse and soccer rose at least 4 percent last year for all Americans, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. With kids dominating those games, youth sports experts saw that as a positive sign after years of decline.
But there is concern that the uptick appears limited to children in higher-income families, according to Tom Farrey, a sportswriter who runs the Aspen Institute’s initiative on youth sports. A 2014 study by the University of Florida showed sports participation rates for children among families earning more than $100,000 per year is 33 percent. For those below $25,000, it’s 15 percent.
In many suburban areas, there has been a shift from recreational leagues to travel teams, with fees topping $2,000 per year. Families who can’t afford that put their children in the cheaper rec leagues, where the level of play has declined because travel teams drain participants and coaches. Frustrated kids get bored and quit.
“A child’s access to sports shouldn’t depend on where the child lives or where the parents work,” said Mark Hyman, a professor of sports management at George Washington University and the author of several books on youth sports. “But too often it does in this era of elite travel teams, private coaching and $300 Little League baseball bats.”
Leveling the Playing Field has donated $1.4 million worth of sports equipment to 250 programs in the region, preventing many from folding because of equipment shortages. It is one of several efforts around the country using the surplus of the haves to help the have-nots.
All Kids Should Play collects used equipment in Baltimore. Teenagers in Westchester, N.Y., started Let’s Play it Forward. Dick’s is also helping through its foundation and Sports Matters effort, providing funds for more than 1,500 teams nationwide.
Leveling the Playing Field was launched in 2013 by Max Levitt, a Bethesda, Md., native who, like most of his peers, had the newest and most expensive gear growing up.
In college, at Syracuse University, he worked as an equipment manager for the football team. Before every season, the managers were told to get rid of “old” equipment — some of it lightly used, some of it new but not the latest model.
“We threw it all in the dumpster,” Levitt said. “It was crazy.”
Levitt, now 27, said he saw similar surpluses later while working for the Montgomery County recreation department.
And he suspected — correctly, it turns out — that people’s garages had piles of unused equipment, either because kids had outgrown it or because newer models promising even higher performance had hit the market.
Levitt worked in sales for Living Social after graduating, but he kept thinking about all that wasted equipment.
“Most things in my life have been given to me,” said Levitt, who attended private schools. “I had all this opportunity just dropped at my feet. I was lucky. A lot of people aren’t. I wanted to start something on my own, to hopefully change a systemic problem.”
At first, Levitt collected equipment at his parents’ house. Word spread. People would drop off items on the driveway. Under Armour learned of his efforts and came by with an enormous truck hauling seven pallets of equipment, dumbfounding Levitt’s mom.
Levitt moved the operation to the Silver Spring warehouse a year and a half ago, and it’s already near capacity. He has corporate donors and relationships with Under Armour, Morgan Stanley and Whole Foods, as well as professional team partnerships for used equipment and donation drives with the Nationals, Capitals and DC United.
To get his inventory, Levitt sets up donation bins at youth athletic complexes and schools in affluent areas. He also encourages synagogues and community groups to have students organize their own equipment drives and help sort gear at the warehouse.
Bethesda residents Melissa Reitkopp and her 12-year-old son Shane have been collecting equipment for three years.
“Right here in D.C., just 10 minutes away from us, there’s a kid who can’t afford a league or doesn’t have the right shoes or a lacrosse stick,” Reitkopp said. “I think that affluent kids need to understand this. And they need to understand that they can make a difference, and everyone will benefit.”
Those in need can swing by the warehouse and pick up what whatever they want. Levitt and his other employee — the staff of two will soon grow to three — will also arrange delivery.
The Satchel Paige Little League in the District has been relying on Leveling the Playing Field’s equipment for four years. Nearly 200 children and their families come to opening day every season and pick out gear.
“Ninety percent of these kids would not be able to play if we didn’t have this equipment,” said Andre Lee, a District public works employee who runs the program. “We wouldn’t have a league.”
Lee says the league is about life skills as much as it is about baseball, a message Levitt constantly hears from other youth sports officials working in impoverished areas. And it’s not just about the kids. Sports is also a way to get parents interacting with school officials and other community leaders.
Do the kids care that the equipment is used?
“It’s new to them,” Lee said. “They love it. Something is better than them trying to catch a ball with their bare hands.”
And the gloves are already broken in.
Levitt showed the Richmond couple and their kids around the warehouse.
“Here’s gloves by size,” Levitt said.
“Here’s catcher’s gear. Take as many sets as you want.”
“Here’s baseball pants.”
“We’ve got jerseys over here. You’ve got youth small, medium and larges.”
Kelvin got bats. His wife helped pick out uniforms. Their son went through boxes of baseball gloves. He even found a brand new one, tag and all. Kelvin spotted some jump ropes.
“Might take some of those,” he said. “They’re good for coordination.”
Levitt stood by, watching. He thought back to winning the championship at basketball camp when he was younger. He still talks about it with his buddies — the celebration, the thrill of victory.
“I want kids to have that same opportunity,” he said.