“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.” Nelson Mandela
In 2005, my father decided to sell his three-generation family garment business and start a nonprofit focused on using the power of play to connect youth to one another in Westchester County, New York. A suburb of New York City, Westchester County is home to some of the most affluent zip codes in the United States, but there are also pockets of poverty, creating stark economic differences among the cities and towns that make up the county.
With his nonprofit, my father hoped to use the power of play to strengthen community bonds, instill the positive life lessons that sport provides youth with fewer advantages, and connect kids with positive role models who would help set them on the path to success.
To his peers, and initially our family, his plan seemed unrealistic: recruit students from affluent communities—students who are preoccupied with college tutors, travel sports leagues and other extra-curriculars—to serve as sports coaches for teens and school children in neighboring communities who don’t have the same opportunities.
I was one of the many students he successfully recruited. I had volunteerism instilled in me at a young age from my time in Hebrew school, but this gig started off as more of a requisite for my Bar-Mitzvah rather than a passion. At first, I would begrudgingly volunteer for my dad, showing up, head down on my phone, counting down the minutes till we would leave the gym.
It took a 12-year-old student from Mount Vernon to help me see the bigger picture. He lived in a predominantly Black, working-class city—saying that Sundays playing basketball were not only the best part of his week, but the only time where he felt truly part of a community.
Sport is not a right, but a privilege and a privilege that needs to be cherished and shared. Where else can two people from starkly different backgrounds show up and compete on equal footing? Where else can students with diverse experiences find common ground? And where else can children, for a brief moment, unite in victory together or console each other in defeat? Sport isn’t just about developing athletic skills or getting exercise. It has the power to build social cohesion and strengthen community.
Yet, for a large cohort of children, sport remains out of reach. According to the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, before COVID-19, boys and girls ages 6-18 from homes with low incomes quit sports because of the financial costs at six times the rate of kids from homes with higher incomes. Programs like my dad’s exist all across the country. They provide only one solution, and supporting initiatives like these is a step in the right direction.
I know firsthand how the simple act of play has the power to alter lives. While donating to causes is one way to engage and support missions like these, it’s not the only answer. We need dedicated volunteers and mentors who can devote their time and act as positive role models and help bridge communities.
All kids in all communities should have the chance to play sports. And, as we start to return to in-person activities, we cannot afford to miss this opportunity.