A Central student, a Trinity student and a Bedford HS walked in to a HOBY conference. What happened next is not a punchline, but a powerful lesson in giving.
MANCHESTER, NH – What began as an extracurricular community service project has grown into a non-profit organization run by a Central High School student and her partners to sponsor underprivileged children who want to play organized sports. Project PLAY pays for team registration fees and equipment when children’s families can’t afford those costs.
“We realize that not every child has the same opportunities to play recreational sports because it can be expensive,” said Project PLAY cofounder and Central senior Kate Aiken. “We thought we could come up with a way to ease that financial burden for the families who need help.”
Project PLAY was created in June 2013 by Aiken, Luke Testa of Trinity High School, and Courtney Pederson of Bedford High School, when they met as sophomores at a Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership (HOBY) conference. HOBY provides students selected by their schools with leadership training, service-learning and motivation-building experiences. As HOBY ambassadors inspired to make a positive change in their community, Kate, Luke and Courtney made the commitment to work to provide every child up to age 12 with the opportunity to play.
The money needed to sponsor children is raised through private or corporate donations, fundraisers and grants. Two Youth Service America grants have totaled $2,000 since September 2013. Last August, Aiken received the ABC Summer of Service Award on behalf of Project PLAY, which provided $500 from Disney ABC Television Group and recognition by the Disney Friends for Change national campaign that supports local service projects.
Since June 2014, Project PLAY has sponsored 72 kids in Manchester and distributed 300 pieces of sports gear collected through equipment drives.
One of the kids Aiken remembers most clearly is the boy who asked for help paying a team registration fee, but Aiken knew he also needed a new pair of sneakers. Aiken used Project PLAY funds to buy the sneakers then walked from Central to the Manchester Boys and Girls Club to deliver them to the boy after school.
“Those are the stories that stick with me and remind me that it’s important to give back to the community because I’ve been so fortunate,” Aiken said. “We want to do more for more kids. But we need help getting the word out to donors and recipients that Project PLAY is a resource.”
Families can contact Project PLAY directly for assistance or sports leagues can ask for help on behalf of individual players unable to pay the related fees. Project PLAY simply asks that the children who will benefit from the financial help write a letter of intent to make an official request for assistance. Requests are reviewed, and when they are approved, Project PLAY pays the leagues directly.
Letters from kids and parents who have received Project PLAY funding prove how much the help means to them.
“They tell us being on a team helps their children make friends and build confidence,” Aiken said. “Without Project PLAY, those kids wouldn’t have had the chance to experience that.”
New Hampshire senators Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte also support the efforts of Project PLAY.
“Playing sports allows children to exercise, socialize and develop important life skills, which include teamwork and sportsmanship,” said Senator Shaheen. “The community is fortunate to have an organization like Project PLAY which gives all children the opportunity to participate.”
Senator Ayotte even hosted an equipment drive at her state office last year, giving the proceeds to Project PLAY.
“Project PLAY is an innovative and important program that improves the lives of underprivileged youth in southern New Hampshire by affording them the ability to participate in organized sports when they would not otherwise have the opportunity to do so,” said Senator Ayotte. “I am proud to support Project PLAY and the efforts of the organization’s founders, Luke Testa, Kate Aiken, and Courtney Pederson to enrich the lives of children in the Granite State.”
When Aiken and her co-founders graduate and move on to college, Project PLAY will continue its mission. They will remain consultants for the organization, while Pederson’s younger sister takes over the day-to-day operations along with new board members and current Central High School sophomores Andriana Skaperdas, Holly Darby, Lilly Hayward and Grace Kirstsy.
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