Poor kids can’t afford $300 baseball bats. This incredible warehouse solves that.

Max Levitt, founder of Leveling the Playing Field in Silver Spring, Md., shows off free sports equipment to Kelvin Giles, who needs it to start a baseball program for at-risk kids in Richmond. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

By Michael S. Rosenwald April 11 

Kelvin Giles and his wife, Tondrea, wanted to start a baseball program for at-risk children in Richmond, but the kids didn’t have gloves, bats or even baseballs.

With no money for a trip to Dick’s Sporting Goods, they drove a rented van 2 1/2 hours to a Silver Spring, Md., warehouse that they’d heard could help their kids play ball. The warehouse is home to Leveling the Playing Field, a nonprofit organization that collects used equipment from the affluent and passes it on to those in need.

When the couple walked into the 4,000-square-foot space earlier this month, it was nearly a religious experience. In giant boxes and on tall shelves were thousands of baseball bats, soccer balls, hockey skates, cleats, lacrosse sticks, tennis rackets and more. All for free.

“In my mind I’m saying, ‘God, you are faithful,’ ” said Kelvin Giles, who with his wife runs the nonprofit Dynamic Works Program Support. “This is almost unbelievable. You cannot overstate how much this is needed.”

The lack of funding for youth sports has challenged parents, coaches and league officials around the country, especially those in cities and rural areas. Youth sports advocates say budget struggles, pricey equipment and the high cost of elite travel teams are leaving behind children with ability but not cash.

Participation rates in baseball, hockey, lacrosse and soccer rose at least 4 percent last year for all Americans, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. With kids dominating those games, youth sports experts saw that as a positive sign after years of decline.

But there is concern that the uptick appears limited to children in higher-income families, according to Tom Farrey, a sportswriter who runs the Aspen Institute’s initiative on youth sports. A 2014 study by the University of Florida showed sports participation rates for children among families earning more than $100,000 per year is 33 percent. For those below $25,000, it’s 15 percent.

There are piles of baseball gloves at Leveling the Playing Field, which collects used sports equipment from the affluent and gives it those who can’t afford it. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

In many suburban areas, there has been a shift from recreational leagues to travel teams, with fees topping $2,000 per year. Families who can’t afford that put their children in the cheaper rec leagues, where the level of play has declined because travel teams drain participants and coaches. Frustrated kids get bored and quit.