Midway through a year of austerity – lowlighted by a 70 percent reduction in funds for middle school sports – Robert Coleman, the District's executive director of the Office of Athletics, finally has good news.
"The train is coming in," Coleman says.
Coleman isn't speaking in metaphors.
The train is a commercial freight train that began its trek in Arizona – loaded with gear from a nearby Adidas outlet – and arrived in Philadelphia the final week of January. Its cargo included over $1.2 million in cleats, warm-ups, T-shirts, and the like, styled and color-coded for each of 57 Philadelphia high schools.
The new gear comes courtesy of Phillies' All-Star first baseman Ryan Howard and his Ryan Howard Family Foundation, which on December 1 announced the donation at a packed City Hall press conference.
In his remarks there, Howard acknowledged the District's financial woes, saying they were an impetus for the foundation's gift.
"When we look at the challenges the School District faces, it's important for us to be able to each … play our part," Howard said.
According to Coleman, Howard's donation is the single largest contribution the Office of Athletics has received in his eight years there.
The publication Education Weekwent as far as to say, "Ryan Howard may have just helped save youth sports in the Philadelphia school district."
Just as crucial as the size of the gift was the man giving it, a sports icon able to attract the media legions with one flash of his megawatt smile and cut through the gloom pervading a troubled school district.
When Coleman entered the Office of Athletics eight years ago, he says the department ran entirely on government revenue. Now, in his words, they "depend on outside contributions and partners."
The District's need has crossed paths with a growing field known here in America as sports philanthropy and described by Sports Illustrated in 2011 as "a burgeoning global movement." A report in the Sports Business Journal noted that the number of professional teams in the four major American sports leagues with charitable foundations ballooned from fewer than 20 in 1988 to more than 95 in 2009.
"Twenty or 30 years ago, the teams would just sell tickets and pay players," says Greg Johnson, the founder and executive director of the Sports Philanthropy Project, a national organization working to grow the sector. Today, the nation's sports teams are all-purpose marketing machines, and the growing sophistication and volume of their charity work reflects that. Same goes for players, whom Johnson likens to "mini-corporations that can mimic the assets the teams have."
In Philadelphia, this maturing largesse has resulted in new relationships between the sports community and a District strapped for funds.
The Hamels Foundation
No athlete-run organization better exemplifies that budding alliance than the Hamels Foundation.
Started in 2008 by Phillies' pitcher Cole Hamels and his wife Heidi, the foundation works in Philadelphia, Springfield, Mo. (Heidi's home town), and Malawi to help end poverty through educational advancement.
The Hamels' commitment to education has deep roots. Cole's father is an administrator in the San Diego area, his mother works as a teaching assistant, and Heidi started her professional life as a middle school teacher.
Kathy Dugas, the foundation's chief operating officer and mother to Heidi Hamels, says her daughter and son-in-law are in the philanthropy world for life.
"Long after [Cole's] career is over, the foundation will go on," Dugas says.
Last year the foundation awarded 17 grants to District schools worth a combined $205,000. The money went toward what Dugas calls "sustainable projects," which included everything from new libraries to community gardens to fitness rooms.
Dugas says the foundation wants to avoid the type of one-time investments – money toward teacher salary or showy, assembly-style events – that lose their tangible benefit after a year or two.
"It [is] about getting to know the principals and getting to know the people in the trenches doing the work," Dugas says.
David Kipphut, principal at Swenson Arts and Technical High School, witnessed that approach last year when the Hamels Foundation granted his school $50,000 for gym renovations.
"They're genuine people, and they were really forthright about what they expected. They didn't expect any sort of recognition. They didn't ask for their name up there or anything. They just wanted to help," Kipphut says.
So much so, Kipphut says, that Heidi Hamels even offered to run exercise classes at the school once they finished work on the project.
Twenty years ago you'd have been hard-pressed to find a charity started by an athlete that fit the Hamels Foundation profile – committed annually to over two dozen low-income schools across two states, building a school in Africa, and trying to do it all with the sophistication of a traditional foundation.
Of course, they have an added weapon most organizations don't: the Hamels name.
Dugas recognizes the celebrity cachet her famous son-in-law brings to the organization and its fundraising efforts.
"We can grab a certain area of the market," Dugas says, "We can grab their attention more easily. If you love baseball or sports you're more inclined" to give.
In sports-crazed Philadelphia, athletes and sports teams have a conspicuous hold on civic life.
No one knows that better than Sarah Martinez-Helfman, executive director of the Eagles Youth Partnership (EYP) since its inception in 1995.
Using the Eagles' brand and the excitement it generates, Martinez-Helfman has built EYP into a worldwide leader in sports philanthropy. Last year the nonprofit Beyond Sport honored the Eagles as their international Sports Team of the Year, in large part because of the services EYP delivers to over 50,000 low-income youth in Philadelphia every year.
Under Martinez-Helfman, EYP's singular ability to leverage every inch of the Eagles' brand in support of their mission has turned the organization into an industry leader.
"We're pied pipers," she says. "We can make reading cool for kids who think it's not cool. We imbue everything with the fun of the Eagles to reach kids who are marginalized."
The District benefits from the Eagles Eye Mobile, launched in 1996, which travels to schools around the region conducting vision tests and providing free prescription glasses to uninsured youth. In 2009-10, a majority of the over 100 sites visited were public schools in Philadelphia. As budget cuts chip away at the District's crew of nurses, demand for the service continues to grow.
Same goes for the Eagles Book Mobile, which distributes books to schools where at least 80 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunch. The Eagles also built new playgrounds at Drew, McKinley, Gideon, Wright, Heston, Bryant, Moffet, Potter-Thomas and Wister schools.
EYP, however, works on a site-by-site basis.
It's the District's macro partnerships with organizations like the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation (ESYHF) that capture Robert Coleman's attention.
Founded by Flyers chairman Ed Snider in 2005, the organization first launched a school-day program designed to teach District students basic skating and hockey skills as part of their physical education curriculum.
Since then, ESYHF has expanded into the afterschool hours and broadened its partnership with the District to include an intramural hockey league.
In the words of ESYHF Executive Director Scott Tharp, "We have actually become the School District hockey provider."
In its role as the sole sponsor of all District hockey instruction and competition, ESYHF provides services valued at about $400,000 a year. It is as steady and lucrative an outside partnership as the Office of Athletics has.
But there are others. Coleman cites a relationship with the soccer nonprofit Starfinder, a wrestling program run by an organization called Beat the Streets Philadelphia, lacrosse opportunities provided by the Philadelphia Lacrosse Association, and a multi-sport partnership with the Black Women in Sports Foundation.
Those partnerships have allowed Coleman to, in his words, "stop the bleeding" as his department struggles with budget cuts.
In the future he hopes for more than just triage from the likes of Ed Snider and Ryan Howard. Coleman wants to build an entire Office of Athletics that is "able to run on outside donations."
Greg Johnson, of the Sports Philanthropy Project, offers a warning, though, to those who see sports philanthropy as a golden goose. He says it's easy to overlook quality control in a sector heavy on celebrity and public posturing.
"It's become fashionable for each athlete to have his or her own foundation," Johnson says, warning that the sprint to positive PR can trample even the best of intentions.
"You can give the books," Johnson says, "but you also have to make sure the books aren't just thrown in the corner."
There's more to sports philanthropy, he says, than handouts.
"You need to develop a relationship with a team," Johnson explains. "School systems and athletic departments need to think strategically about all the assets a team has and avail themselves of them—not just take a … check and think nothing more."
For now though, after the year that Robert Coleman has had, the train seems more than enough.