Reflections from our founder, Emily Eisner

IMG_3079The ability to play sports has always been a huge part of my life. I started playing soccer when I was four years old and my experience being on a team truly shaped the woman and leader I am today. Sports have shaped my character and taught me the importance of teamwork and of incorporating a healthy lifestyle into my daily routine. Although sports have always been a huge part of my youth, I didn’t realize what a privilege this access to athletics was until I was 11 years old and visited a school in Pacoima, a very poor area of Los Angeles. I spent the morning tutoring younger students and when we went to recess, I realized they didn’t have anything to do. Until then, I had thought that recess meant grabbing a ball for whatever sport I felt like playing and racing out to the fields. My favorite part of school was playing sports with my friends at recess, lunch or P.E. However, the situation for these students was very different because their school had virtually no sports equipment. They had no sports equipment to use to be active and learn to work together. I couldn’t believe that not all kids were growing up with the same resources I had taken for granted. Months later, this experience stuck with me and I felt that it was my responsibility to do something to help. Even though I was just a kid, I knew I could make a difference and help those students. To accomplish this goal, I created Play It Forward.

The first year, my goal was to find a way to supply the school I had visited in Pacoima with the sports equipment it needed for the year. I decided to collect new and gently used sporting equipment from my friends, family, schoolmates, teammates, and everyone else I knew to donate to the school. I also organized a relay race at my school’s annual open house, attended by thousands of families and prospective students, to raise awareness for the importance of athletics and giving kids the opportunity to live a healthy lifestyle from an early age. The equipment collection was so successful that I delivered a whole truckload of equipment to the school. I didn’t expect what I had done would be a big deal, but when I arrived at the school the entire student body was chanting my name and “Play It Forward.” Kids were running up to me, hugging me, crying and thanking me for what I had done. I will never forget the joy and excitement on those kids’ faces from what to me seemed like a very simple action, giving them balls to play with.

After seeing the huge impact I was able to make on the lives of others, especially other kids, I knew I wasn’t going to stop there. I was inspired to do even more. I decided to expand Play It Forward and shift its focus from collecting used gear and passing it along to raising money to purchase and donate new sports equipment. To do this, I took action to formalize the non-profit status of Play It Forward and obtained official 501(c)(3) certification. I spent that year establishing a Board of Directors, making sure to include professionals with different business, non-profit, educational, and athletic experience, to ensure we could achieve Play It Forward’s mission – to engage students in athletics by providing sporting equipment to underserved schools. With the formalities of bylaws and board resolutions taken care of, we provided full grants of brand new sports equipment to two schools in our second year.

The next year, Play It Forward’s third, our goals were much more aggressive. I decided to advance the process of providing equipment to schools by creating a grant application process – schools would complete a simple application for a Play It Forward equipment grant and we would choose what to supply to those schools based on their need and ability to effectively utilize the equipment they were being given. I also wanted to create a website where we would display a basic overview of the organization and which would serve as a platform for donations and grant applications from interested schools. We again set an aggressive goal to double our impact and provide equipment grants to four schools. By organizing a cocktail party for donors, we raised enough money to fund seven schools – mostly with full equipment grants and some with partial grants. We also launched the Play It Forward website, which was a huge step forward in growing the organization and giving it a public face. Through this successful growth in year three, I became even clearer on my vision for the organization to continue providing more equipment to more schools every year.

Last year, Play It Forward’s fourth year, I set four major goals for the year: to provide equipment to eight schools, to find a better source for equipment purchasing, to identify a major annual fundraising, and to engage more students in the equipment preparation and delivery part of the process so they could see first-hand what difference they can make in their community. We exceeded all of these goals. I started by presenting the idea of an annual 5k to my Board, which culminated in the First Annual Play It Forward 5k Run/Walk. With 140 participants and 12 corporate sponsors, we raised over $20,000. Then, through one of our corporate sponsors, I connected with the owner of Champion Sports, a sports equipment manufacturer. Champion’s owner genuinely believed in our mission and agreed to give us 50% off the already discounted catalogue price on all equipment purchases. With this partnership, I was able to provide 11 schools with at least $5,000 worth of equipment each.

After the huge growth of this past year, I hope to keep that momentum going, but I also recognize the challenges that come with this incredibly fast expansion. Taking a step back and looking at the big picture, I have set five key goals for Play It Forward for the upcoming school year:

• Provide sporting equipment to 15 schools. This will cost $37,000-$40,000 and is dependent on further successful fundraising efforts.
• Increase awareness of Play It Forward’s mission, especially among schools in need that do not know about us or understand that our equipment grants really are “no strings attached.”
• Develop and provide lesson plans to the schools receiving our grants, since very few of them have designated P.E. teachers. This will allow the schools to take full advantage of the resources we are providing.
• Bring Play It Forward back to the original key value of “kids helping kids”. Although kids do all of our volunteering, I want to bring more of our “youth advisors” into the bigger picture of planning and implementing.
• Establish a succession plan for some (but definitely not all) of the roles that I may have to give up when I go to college.

While this is yet another set of lofty goals, we are well on our way. We just held our Second Annual Play It Forward 5k Run/Walk, which was a huge success. With 200 registrants, 24 sponsors, and over $42,000 raised, we basically doubled our numbers from the first year. We have also already received a record number of applications from schools that have heard about us from a wide variety of school administrators, city officials and media outlets. I also began working closely with a friend who is currently in 8th grade and was one of Play It Forward’s first youth volunteers to help prepare him to assume a larger role when I go to college. He is now a Board member and has full Board support to step into a leadership role along with me. We have also created a sub-committee of the Board, led by a world-class-athlete-turned-P.E.-teacher, to develop a curriculum that can be implemented easily by teachers at recipient schools.

Through all of my work with Play It Forward I have learned that even though I am a kid and people may doubt me because of that, I can still have a profound impact on the community around me and the world as a whole. In such a big place, I continue to be amazed by the difference I can make by giving students a simple necessity. I have also learned that although the world can be a harsh and even scary place, when a community rallies together behind a certain goal, they can fix whatever problem they face and overcome whatever obstacle stands in their way. Whenever I watch kids with beaming smiles or even crying in appreciation from receiving sports equipment, I am reminded how little it takes and how easy it is to help others, and that it is the responsibility of every person to take care of those around them. Even in what seems like the smallest possible way, caring for the people around you is essential.

Posted on April 28, 2016

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