Sometimes, Denise Rodriguez gets to use a cellphone to play games or look at YouTube videos, but she’d rather be outside riding her bike or playing soccer.
That’s why the 9-year-old was among a gaggle of kids holding lacrosse sticks and kicking soccer balls outside the Isaías González-Soto Branch Library Friday afternoon.
About two dozen children were among the earliest to discover a new program at the Niagara Street library that lends sports equipment to those 16 and younger so they can get outside and play.
“It’s nice of the library to do this,” said Denise, an almost-fifth-grader who lives on the West Side.
Several nonprofits – fueled by the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation – joined forces to create the lending program, which allows children with a library card to borrow a duffel bag stuffed with either youth-sized soccer or lacrosse equipment. Each of the 40 bags, split evenly between the sports, also includes cones to set up games.
The library also will allow children to “play down” their library fines, if necessary, when they borrow the equipment, and has stocked library shelves with new books on athletes, athletics, fitness and sportsmanship.
“You may be wondering what books and libraries, sports and the Wilson Foundation all have in common. Well, truthfully, we share the common goal of wanting to help local children live happy, healthy and successful lives,” said Joy Testa Cinquino, assistant deputy director for development and communications with the Buffalo & Erie County Library System.
The new program is designed to lift mind, body and spirit, Cinquino said.
Mary Jean Jakubowski, director of the library system, said the Niagara Street library was selected to start the program because it sits along the edge of Carl A. Perla Jr. Park, also known as Prospect Park, where the equipment can easily be used.
If the $259,000 pilot program succeeds, it will expand to other libraries in the 37-branch system. Meanwhile, Jakubowski said, any child in Erie County with a library card can visit the González-Soto branch to borrow the equipment.
Project Play Western New York – one of two major youth initiatives started last year by the Wilson Foundation – funds and helped design the program.
Victory Sports, a nonprofit that supplies underserved communities with free sports equipment, provided the goods for the program and will keep them in stock.
Algonquin Sports for Kids – an offshoot of the Buffalo Soccer Club – will regularly run clinics outside the library focused on teaching the basic skills.
“We don't focus on competition,” said Lauren Pristach, a program director with Algonquin who spent part of Friday afternoon showing Denise how to properly hold a lacrosse stick. "We teach the skills that you can learn outside of that: how to win and how to lose, how to be a good teammate, how to work together on the field – and even more simple than that, how to find the courage to try something new.
“Some kids can't get enough of sports and outside time,” Pristach said. “Other kids think it's not really their cup of tea until they're doing it, and then they really enjoy it.”
Bridget Niland, director of Project Play, underlined the need for such programs.
“Eighty-four percent of kids in our region fail to get an hour of activity a day,” she said. “We spent 2018 really looking at why that was and came to the stark realization that kids today in the 21st century are . . . pushed out of sports because it's too much too soon, and not fun. Or some of our kids are just stuck in a really hyper-competitive sports model that only fits people that can write the paychecks.
“What we've decided to do at Project Play is experiment with as many different things as we can do, and as many different partners who are willing to work with us, to bring the fun back to sports and bring sports back to the kids,” Niland said.
Project Play Free Play challenge decks also are available for children and families in the González-Soto branch, with cards that provide directions for games including Red Rover, Home Free Freeze Tag and Mother May I, Four Square, King of the Court and Capture the Flag. The organization will make the decks available elsewhere in the region and also recently began offering Free Play programs at parks in the region.
If the equipment sharing program proves successful, it could spread regionwide, Niland said.
Meanwhile, Built to Play, a companion effort bolstered by the Wilson Foundation, has built elaborate playgrounds at two parks in the Southern Tier. Another will go up later this week at Mayors Park in North Tonawanda, and another in September in Martin Luther King Jr. Park on the East Side.
Doug Rifenburg, executive director of Victory Sports, believes the library program will succeed, based on what he already has seen in the city and inner-ring suburbs since he started his organization two years ago.
Victory Sports has outfitted Buffalo city police patrol cars with basketballs, footballs and soccer balls, and officers have distributed more than 4,000 of them to kids on their beats, Rifenburg said.
The organization has “honor racks” of basketballs at two city parks and in coming days will start to unveil “ball bins” filled with soccer balls, volleyballs, playground balls, Wiffle balls, jump ropes and cones at parks and playgrounds, and outside community centers.
That equipment will be free to use, said Rifenburg, a former sports apparel business owner and son of Dick Rifenburg, a sports broadcaster in the region from 1951 into the 1980s.
“These bins will be outside, unattended 24/7,” he said. “What my job is going to be, as you can well imagine, is driving around every week and replacing balls that have been taken. We're expecting that. What's nice, honestly, with everything that the Ralph Wilson Foundation does, is we're testing stuff. This is one of those projects that they wanted to try to test. We raised our hand and said we would help out.”