The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation has been creating safe places for kids to play in cities around the country, from Chicago to Miami, Baltimore to Spokane, and the Bronx all the way to Los Angeles. The organization is based in Baltimore and was founded by brothers Bill and Cal Ripken, Jr. as a tribute to their father’s devotion to teaching life skills and lessons through sports.
The foundation offers programming ranging from law enforcement relationships to girls’ empowerment to healthy lifestyles and more. Over 460,900 at-risk youth have access to one of the parks built by their Youth Development Parks Initiative. With 81 parks built (and counting) around the country, the parks initiative is making positive change in communities nationwide.
We spoke with Randy Acosta, Vice President of Resource Development at the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, to learn more about how their team makes the parks program happen.
“Anytime you are in the charitable world, relationships are so critical,” says Acosta. “For us, it’s not so much about going after new donors, but cultivating the ones we have.”
The foundation works hard to maintain relationships with their existing network and grow those relationships and their level of involvement. “Especially when we are building parks, the resource piece is important- being able to develop those resources effectively are critical to make the project successful.”
Acosta made it clear that it’s not about serving one million kids, but rather serving kids more often. “We’d rather serve a smaller number of kids two times a week than a large majority of kids just two times period.”
The resources that the Ripken Foundation develops and maintains are crucial to making these parks happen. Local partnerships are a big part of the parks program. This past July, the foundation announced a 5 year partnership with Major League Baseball and Group1001 to build 10 parks and implement the MLB’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. “We had some criteria, but ultimately we want to work with like-minded partners that we align well with,” explains Acosta. “The saying ‘if you build it, they will come’ is not something we’ve found to be true. It’s more like ‘if you build it, you have to show up’.”
The foundation works hard to show up and maintain strategic and collaborative local partnerships at every park they establish. They look for quality over quantity. Acosta adds, “Some questions we asked leading up to this partnership (and others) were will there be a youth partner? Will there be law enforcement engagement?”
The Youth Development Parks Initiative started in 2009 when the foundation recognized the lack of clean, safe play space in their Baltimore community. “So, our team thought, how do we create a safe place to recreate?”, recounts Acosta. Their answer was the Youth Development Parks Initiative. “These parks are more like outdoor classrooms to us. We have a saying- we build big league people, not big league players. To us, it’s not about baseball. It’s about the kids.”
In the first five years of the program, the foundation built five parks. Over the last ten years, they’ve built more than 80. “So, we’ve learned a lot along the way,” affirms Acosta. That includes what they don’t want. “We don’t want to build a commuter field- somewhere kids have to be taken to- dropped off and picked up. We want these parks to be somewhere that kids are already gathering. As a kid walks home from school, the field is there.” This provides the accessibility and attendance their local partners need to run their programming.
The Ripken Foundation has a number of other programming options they offer to communities around the country. The parks initiative is a great opportunity to integrate that programming to those communities that need it. “We leave no park behind,” Acosta explains, adding that any supplemental programming is contingent on the community they are looking at.
“Our Badges for Baseball program [focused on law enforcement engagement and mentorship] is typically something we hear or see as a need in that local community. Sometimes we hear there is nothing for the ladies and the community is looking for more female participation, so we’ll bring in our I’m GREAT (Girls Respecting Each other And Themselves) program.”
I’m GREAT combines sports, leadership activities and mentoring to middle school girls so they can gain confidence to make positive decisions and develop into empowered young women. The Ripken Foundation has programming focused on financial literacy, fitness and nutrition, anti-bullying and more, and works to fill the gaps with existing youth organizations where the parks program is implemented.
“We look at what they are running that we can latch on to and we are careful not to duplicate services,” explains Acosta. “But if they don’t have a particular program or service, we can provide it.”
The foundation understands that they must stay focused on the unique opportunities and needs of each community they work with. “There’s no such thing as a one size fits all park,” Acosta says. “Every park is unique.” He references one of the parks they built in Houston, how there was a group of adult soccer players trespassing on the field in the evenings without permission to play pickup games.
“Instead of banning them from the park, we made them a deal- if you supervise our young kids during their time at the park, you can use the field afterwards for free,” Acosta recounts. “To us, it’s all about realistic and collaborative partnerships to improve the whole community.”
So how does the foundation raise money for all these parks? Per Acosta, funding comes from individual donors, corporate donors, foundations and local municipalities. “We like to have 60% of funding coming from youth organizations and local partners so that they have some skin in the game and are committed to the partnership,” he says.
The Ripken Foundation team typically has a conversation with a partner that has lead gifts secured and then can leverage their national partners, grant team and support staff to close the gap. “We don’t want to compete with local funds, project management, and all of that already going into different parts of the community,” says Acosta. “We want to create partnerships for funding on a national level that can then contribute to our local projects.”
With 81 parks in 22 states and Washington, D.C., over 460,900 kids with access to a Youth Development Park field and many success stories to share, we asked what the future looks like for the parks project. Acosta made it simple: “Our goal is to have 115 parks built by the end of 2020 and then continue from there. We know that many kids are looking for a safe place to go and play. We want to provide that place for them.”