By Gretchen Althoff Snyder
Start with a group of friends from Princeton with a passion for sports and an inherent desire to give back to those less fortunate. Add generous community partners, countless volunteers, and a whole lot of dedication and hard work. The result is PlaySmart Academy – a weeklong summer program based in Rye that helps underserved students in 5th through 8th grade realize their academic and life potential though sports.
Rye resident Kevin Kavanagh, one of the original founders of PlaySmart, recalls gathering every July 4th weekend with his buddies from college for a friendly 3-on-3 basketball tournament. One evening in 1995, the group began talking about creating something meaningful and lasting out of their annual alumni gathering. “We talked about the impact that sports had on our lives to that point and how the opportunity to participate in organized sports was not available to everyone,” says Kavanagh, who played soccer at Princeton. In 1997, the group formed a nonprofit organization with the mission to provide underserved communities with access to organized sports programs.
After several years of raising money through fundraisers and donating the proceeds to sports programs aligned with their mission, the group created PlaySmart Academy, a week-long sports program now hosted in various different cities around the country, including Rye. Admission is need-based and free of charge – including busing, which is provided to and from the program.
Each of the five days has a pillar, or theme, which is reinforced throughout the day – Respect, Honesty, Hard Work, Teamwork, and Sportsmanship. Different sports are offered each day, and different coaches and motivational speakers (all of whom donate their time) guide the kids through activities, sports, and lectures, all in keeping with the pillar of the day. Kavanagh notes that “life-skills” classroom sessions are also offered to help the kids understand how the five core values mentioned above are not only important on the playing field, but also for their lives outside of sports.
In addition to the coaches, speakers, and volunteers, Amanda Kavanagh (fundraising/marketing) highlights the incredible, unwavering generosity of the Academy’s community partners: Rye Country Day School, which has generously donated their state-of-the-art sports facilities and fields each year since its inception; and local businesses like The Granola Bar, Rye Country Store, June & Ho, and Rye Grill and Bar, each of which donated and delivered a delicious, healthy lunch for almost 100 people during the week-long program in July.
The backbone of Rye’s PlaySmart Academy is Director Liz Delizia, who tirelessly devotes her time and energy to ensure the camp runs like clockwork — from recruiting counselors, speakers, coaches and volunteers to reaching out to local organizations to find kids that might benefit from the program. Jenn Reisner, who helped create the classroom materials used to reinforce the pillars each day, also devotes countless hours helping Liz with the day-to-day operations and providing a fun and meaningful experience for all involved.
Carolyne Molano, a former camper who is now a counselor, sums it up this way: “PlaySmart changed my life — it is an experience I will never forget as a camper and a counselor. I am so grateful that I am part of something that makes me realize how important sports can be to people — every kid really enjoys being at the Academy.”
Since the very first program in 2013, Kevin Kavanagh says he is still overwhelmed by the substantial, ongoing community support for PlaySmart Academy: “It’s truly remarkable and humbling to think about how many people and organizations in the Rye community have contributed to this program, not just with financial contributions, but with their willingness to take time out of their busy lives to help out in various ways — whether it be as coaches, guest speakers, lunch servers, yoga instructors, or bus monitors.”
To learn more about PlaySmart Academy, visit www.playsmart.org.