Opportunity through sports
In 1997, when this photo was taken, a group of alumni founded a nonprofit that organizes sports programs for ­middle-schoolers. In the front row sitting, from left: Joel Sharp ’91, John Richard, Justin Long ’91, Thomas Bevan ’91; second row sitting
In 1997, when this photo was taken, a group of alumni founded a nonprofit that organizes sports programs for ­middle-schoolers. In the front row sitting, from left: Joel Sharp ’91, John Richard, Justin Long ’91, Thomas Bevan ’91; second row sitting: Richard Kahn ’91 (dark glasses), Michael Hirou ’91, James Lowry ’91, Kevin Kavanagh ’90; standing: John McIntyre ’91, David Archer ’90, David Wright ’91, Joe Baker ’91, Robert English ’91, Derek Leathers ’91, Christopher Hallihan ’91 (headband), Renard Charity ’91, Frank Ille ’91, John Gabrielli ’91, W. Troy Hottenstein ’91.
Courtesy Jill Baker

Like many close Princeton friends, a group of some two dozen members of the classes of ’90 and ’91 — mostly football players, with a few baseball, basketball, soccer, and hockey players thrown in — have gathered each summer for a mini-reunion. At one of those events in 1997, their talk turned, as it often did, to sports and the positive impact it had in their lives. Sports had helped form their values and positioned them to succeed. But what about children whose parents couldn’t shuttle them from practice to practice or pay the equipment fees — or whose schools didn’t have organized teams? What could they do to make a difference for such kids? 

To give underserved children the same opportunities they had, the group created PlaySmart Inc., a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help middle-schoolers realize their academic and life potential through sports, with a long-term goal of establishing summer sports camps in urban and rural areas across the country. Each of the athletes at that 1997 reunion became a board member; until 2009, when they hired an executive director, the organization was run completely by volunteers. 

The alumni threw themselves into fundraising, which has ranged from running marathons and wine-tastings to golf tournaments and a now-annual event in conjunction with the New York Jets that has netted six figures. 

Without the infrastructure initially to run its own sports camps, PlaySmart has partnered with local organizations that support a similar mission. “You know what the issues are in your community and the people who can help,” says David Wright ’91. 

While in New Orleans to coach for the Saints in the early 2000s, Joe Baker ’91 helped PlaySmart fund another group’s summer field trips to college campuses, the first time many participating kids had left their parishes; he also organized a two-week summer program called “Paddle and Paint,” exposing students to swimming and art. In Omaha, thanks to Derek Leathers ’91, PlaySmart funds a youth football league, and he created a board to oversee the organization’s regional expansion. In more than 10 cities, PlaySmart has helped nearly 5,000 children participate in sports-related programming.

Last summer, PlaySmart realized another goal by opening its own tuition-free summer sports camps in Omaha, Denver, and Tampa Bay — the first of what the group hopes will be many similar camps. Baker and his wife, Jill, who serves as the organization’s executive director, were intimately involved with the Tampa camp, which introduced more than 100 youths to volleyball, flag football, basketball, soccer, water skills, and study skills. “We want to be the premiere summer-camp provider for underserved kids,” Joe Baker says. 

While the organization has received many letters from grateful parents, most of the evidence of its success so far is anecdotal. “Can I say that in 10 years, this kid or that kid is going to be better off?” Wright says. “I don’t know with certainty, but I believe that he or she will.”

The group of friends continues to hold annual mini-reunions that now include a Saturday-morning board meeting. “From the beginning, we wanted this to be a lifelong undertaking,” says Wright. “At our 50th reunion, we’ll be sitting back with the same group of folks, saying, ‘We built an organization that will survive us.’”