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20 Years of Creating Opportunities to Play

In 1998 – the very year that the Buffalo local office opened – LISC teamed up with the NFL Foundation to launch a program called Grassroots Grants. The idea was to create a partnership that would help neighborhood-based groups create or revitalize local football fields in low-income communities, improving access to safe, quality recreational spaces for youth and families.

The NFL Foundation would provide the funding for the field improvements, while LISC would oversee the program and provide technical assistance to the groups receiving the grants.

“Good recreational facilities are part of a comprehensive community building plan, providing opportunity for healthy physical activities,” said Michael Clarke, former longtime Buffalo LISC executive director. “The fields provide new opportunities for youth from low-income families to take advantage of facilities that are similar to those in more prosperous areas and schools, rather than playing on worn out and sometimes hazardous surfaces. They also provide supervised team building, and an opportunity for involved volunteer coaches (parents).”

Buffalo broke ground on its first Grassroots Grants project at Riverside Park in 1999. The NFL Foundation provided an $80,000 grant to Black Rock – Riverside Neighborhood Housing Services to enhance its master plan for Riverside Park by restoring a playing field for sports teams and families to utilize. This project was paired with the organization’s efforts to revitalize a local business district adjacent to the park, providing a perfect example of LISC’s vision for comprehensive community development.

A coach works with youth players at Mulroy Field in South Buffalo
A coach works with youth players at Mulroy Field in South Buffalo

Since that time, Buffalo LISC and the NFL Foundation, in partnership with the Buffalo Bills, have invested a total of $1.3 million in 10 field revitalization projects in Buffalo and Western New York. This funding, paired with funds from other sources, has provided everything from new playing surfaces, to lighting, goal posts, benches and scoreboards.

In 2010, a $200,000 grant from the NFL leveraged funding from the City of Buffalo, a local foundation, and a private donor to provide a new artificial turf field at Mulroy Park in South Buffalo. The project was spearheaded by the Buffalo Legacy Project, a local non-profit group dedicated to bringing health and wellness to neighborhoods in need.  The field, located in a working class neighborhood, had suffered from years of neglect and underutilization. After the renovations, over 2,000 local high school students and youth athletes had access to a state-of-the-art playing surface, and the community had a space to take pride in.

In 2013, the NFL contributed $200,000 to the renovation of Nicoletti Field in Niagara Falls as part of a larger capital improvement project called Inventing Tomorrow. The larger project included a $12 million investment from the Niagara Falls City School District and a matching $12 million from the City of Niagara Falls, providing upgrades to 10 playing fields in the Niagara Falls District.

These funds allowed the District to revitalize a field at Niagara Falls High School with a synthetic turf surface and designate it specifically for use by little league programs. The field is located across from a family public housing project, thus providing youth from low-income families with a safe space to play.

Nicoletti Field in Niagara Falls
Nicoletti Field in Niagara Falls

“LISC’s national partnership with the NFL has heightened the awareness of major sports organizations to the important role they can play in challenged areas,” said Clarke. “The NFL partnership is also leading to new opportunities for participation and sponsorship of community activities with other pro sports leagues.”

The partnership with the Buffalo Bills and the NFL Foundation has helped LISC to round out its local community development efforts with a program specifically designed to enhance community health and recreational opportunities. Additionally, it has shown how significantly the involvement of a national partner like the NFL can enhance LISC’s work in our local communities.

“Being able to support the creation of safe and accessible athletic fields for children in our community is something that the Bills organization is very proud of,” said Preston Teague, Senior Director of Community Relations and Youth Football. “The Local Initiatives Support Corporation has done a great job identifying areas of the Western New York community that can benefit from NFL Foundation Grassroots Grant funding, and making sure the selected projects are completed and sustainable.  The fields constructed and refurbished through the Grassroots Grant program provide a home to a number of youth and high school football teams in Buffalo and Rochester and have given these groups a safe and secure environment to teach and learn the game of football”.

LISC and partners at the groundbreaking of Perkins Park on Buffalo's East Side
LISC and partners at the groundbreaking of Perkins Park on Buffalo's East Side

Next on the list for Buffalo LISC is Perkins Park, located on the city’s East Side, where a $50,000 Grassroots grant will support the creation of a multifaceted recreational complex. The site was once home to the former Humboldt African American YMCA, which was built in 1908 and served as a pillar of the Hamlin Park community for over a century.

Saving Grace Ministries is now working to transform the site into a sports complex, with the support of the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabres. The complex will include a grass football field, a community center, a refurbished indoor basketball court, swimming pool, and a skating rink.

The complex is an expansion of the Patriot Heights Apartments, a 16-unit affordable housing project targeted for homeless veterans and their children. Not only will the complex will provide residents with access to clean, safe and high quality recreational facilities, but they will also be connected to programs and services through the Resource Counsel of Western New York.

 “The Perkins Park Sports complex funded in part through LISC represents a significant resource for our community,” said Rev. Terry King of Saving Grace Ministries. “The youth football field, along with the inline skate park, basketball courts and other park amenities represent opportunity and access for our community. Community groups have stepped forward to join in organized play and the excitement builds to offer flag football and other sports activities. Through LISC and other partners, this project represents the heart and soul of Buffalo, providing the best for our children, families and generations to come.”