As his first order of business every football season, University of Syracuse equipment manager Max Levitt would clear the old equipment out of storage to make room for the new stuff.
“I had to throw everything out,” recalled Levitt in a Bethesda Magazine profile last year. “It was a huge waste.”
Above: In 2-plus years, Leveling the Playing Field has donated over $1 million worth of gently used sports gear to 250 youth sports and activities programs. Image: Leveling the Playing Field
He witnessed even more equipment meet the same fate during summers spent with Washington D.C.’s NFL club, and it just didn’t sit right with him. Growing up, Levitt was taught that his unrestricted access to organized sports – and the equipment needed to play them – were privileges not every kid experienced.
“I was lucky to have parents who constantly reminded me how lucky I was to be in this position,” writes Levitt in a blog post.
Now, as Executive Director of Leveling the Playing Field (LPF), the nonprofit he founded after graduating from Syracuse in 2011, he’s responsible for donating over $1 million worth of sports equipment to 250 athletic programs so far.
“All I needed to do (growing up) was go to the local Sports Authority and purchase the equipment I needed,” says the 27-year-old Levitt on the website of his Maryland-based organization. “For a growing population of children across the country, that is certainly not the case. This fact is what motivates me every day.”
While the lifelong benefits of youth sports have been well documented, so too has the correlation between the rising cost of participation and the decline of participation among children in underserved communities.
Ninety percent of these kids would not be able to play if we didn’t have this equipment.”
A 2014 study from the University of Florida Sport Policy & Research Collaborative sums up the growing participation gap:
“The available data suggests that now more than ever, it takes significant resources such as time, access, and money to develop as an athlete and be fully engaged in organized sport activities. This reality eliminates or limits access to quality sports opportunities for millions of American kids in low income families.”
Thanks to Levitt’s organization, underfunded youth sports and activity programs have been able to take money originally allocated for gear and redirect it toward efforts that drive participation, such as lowering registration fees, offering after-school transportation, and hiring more staff.
According to LPF, more than 90 percent of its beneficiaries have been able to expand the availability of their programs as a direct result of those equipment donations.
Others, like Satchel Paige Little League, credit LPF for its very existence.
“Ninety percent of these kids would not be able to play if we didn’t have this equipment,” an SPLL administrator recently told the Washington Post. “We wouldn’t have a league.”
Above: Max Levitt, founder of Leveling the Playing Field. What started as a side project soon snowballed into a full-time mission, with the Maryland native quitting his job to oversee his growing charitable endeavor.
It’s those special relationships, and the sheer volume LPF collects and distributes, that set Levitt’s operation apart.
All the equipment that once consumed the house of Levitt’s parents during the program’s start has now moved to a 4,000-square-foot warehouse in Silver Springs, Maryland. The abundant and diverse inventory comes from all over, including collection bins set up around schools and sports facilities in the region, corporate partners such as UnderArmour and professional sports teams such as the Washington Capitals and D.C. United.
The warehouse is open for anybody to visit and pick out what they need – from a pair of baseball pants to a lacrosse stick. Additionally, programs can apply online for larger equipment grants.
“With equipment prices at an all time high, it is important to realize the significance of helping those less fortunate than ourselves,” says Levitt on the LPF blog. “Whether it is a family like mine, a private sports league, a collegiate athletic department or even a professional sports franchise, we all need to realize there are people who are not as fortunate as we are.”
Folks in Greater Bethesda can lend a hand to Leveling the Playing Field by bringing donations to the Silver Spring warehouse or volunteering at the facility. Their website also provides opportunities for fundraising or organizing an equipment drive.
To support the broader cause in your area, team up with organizations like United Way and Boys & Girls Club, or contact local schools, community/recreation centers, and athletic associations to determine needs, help organize collection points, and distribute gear.
Soliciting local businesses to help "sweeten the pot" by offering discounts or rewards to those who donate is never a bad idea, either.
And for more tips on starting your own equipment drive, who better than Max and his crew at Leveling the Playing Field? Reach out to them for ideas and inspiration at email@example.com, or call (331) 801-0738.
At the rate kids grow out of stuff, there's no doubt you'll be able to outfit quite a few young athletes with donations from just your members alone.
Encourage a young athlete with an inspiring message. Thank a coach, parent, or teammate who's made a difference in your life. Pass the flame for them to share and keep alive. Because one little spark is all it takes to ignite something great.