Kelly Park, in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood, had seen better days. Operated jointly by the Chicago Park District and Kelly High School and located directly across California Avenue, the 7-acre park had deteriorated so badly since opening in the early 1950s that the school’s soccer and football teams had to move their home games elsewhere. That turned into a problem when street gangs, operating east of Western Avenue, began attacking Kelly players at the larger, better-equipped McKinley Park.
“Our park had been passed up and forgotten,” said Patrick Brosnan, executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BNPC), a nonprofit community organization. “So we began to organize.”
Individually, the park district, the school, or any other local partner did not have the couple million dollars it would cost to install a synthetic turf field. But, through a series of strategic phone calls, BNPC linked up with Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Chicago and applied for a $200,000 grant through the LISC/NFL Foundation Grassroots Program.
Cooperation was key in securing the $2 million football/soccer improvement. Besides $200,000 contributed by the Chicago Bears via the NFL Foundation Grassroots Program, significant investments came from the Chicago Park District, the public schools, the state of Illinois through the efforts of Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-IL), the U.S. Soccer Federation, the city of Chicago and the Pritzker-Traubert Family Foundation.
The $200,000 NFL Foundation Grassroots grant represented a fraction of the new field’s total cost, but with that money in hand, BNPC gained considerable credibility as it approached other potential funders. Through those contributions, Kelly High School athletes will have a place to play, as do residents of the largely Mexican-American Brighton Park neighborhood. It’s a phenomenon that is occurring elsewhere in the country via the NFL Foundation Grassroots Program.
Building Fields, Partnerships and Communities
There’s little doubt that safe, accessible park and recreational facilities are essential for fostering active, healthy communities. The question that park departments and outdoor recreation advocates often face is not, “Should we build or renovate our facilities?” but rather, “How do we make it happen?” and “How do we pay for it?”
Increasingly, the answer is through the type of partnerships and multi-organization collaboration that sparked the Kelly Park renovation. This often requires park departments working with schools and nonprofit organizations, not only because they can contribute much-needed resources toward projects and programs, but also because they are deeply rooted in local neighborhoods. These groups are composed of and led by community residents who know and understand their neighborhood’s unique needs.
The NFL Foundation Grassroots Program brings together public, private and nonprofit groups to improve the quality, safety and accessibility of local playing fields. The program is a partnership between the NFL Foundation and the LISC. LISC is the nation’s largest support organization for nonprofit community development and the NFL Foundation is a nonprofit organization with a mission of improving the lives of football players and communities across the country.
Since the late 1990s, the NFL Foundation Grassroots Program has donated more than $40 million to create or refurbish more than 300 playing fields nationwide — many of them in public parks. The program provides 1:1 matching grants of up to $200,000 and technical assistance to help renovate or build athletic fields. To date, it has given about $2.5 million annually, totaling more than $40 million in more than 70 cities across the country.
Successful applicants to the program are community-based organizations, middle schools or high schools. All applicants are required to demonstrate community support and ensure that fields are open to the community through joint-use agreements. Public agencies are prohibited from applying, unless they are working in cooperation with a school or nonprofit. Award winners are encouraged to work or continue working with USA Football, the sport’s national governing body. Through its Heads Up Football program, USA Football collaborates with local teams and leagues to educate coaches, players and parents on issues ranging from heat preparedness and hydration to concussion recognition and response.
“This formula works. Not only have over 300 field projects been funded during the 16-year history of the program, but the grants have also brought together, reunited and strengthened community organizations and public agencies’ relationships in communities across the country,” President and CEO of LISC Michael Rubinger says.
It’s often difficult to fundraise and find resources for park and recreation projects. The NFL Foundation Grassroots Grant program is an opportunity for financing assistance. Another opportunity is the LISC/ESPN Pilot Home Court Program, which was launched this year to help communities finance the construction or renovation of basketball courts.
These two programs provide park departments with help to finance projects, build partnerships, collaborate, cooperate and gain greater community involvement in seeing important recreation facility projects to fruition.
Click here for more information regarding the NFL Foundation Grassroots Program and the LISC/ESPN Pilot Home Court Program.
Beverly Smith is Senior Program Director for Sports and Recreation at Local Initiatives Support Corporation.