Empower play gives young athletes a better shot

Troy Shantz

Graham Holmes learned from a very young age that you have to pay to play.

With no extra money in the family budget to cover his travel basketball registration fees when he was 16, Holmes found a job selling basketball shoes.

“My parents couldn’t afford it… they would never choose to take food off the table to put someone in a travel sport,” said Holmes, 32. “And that registration was only $300.”

It’s this reality many young athletes face that inspired Holmes to start Empower Play, a local non-profit that helps cover league and program fees for young athletes and artists with potential.

Holmes, who’s coached minor football and basketball, said he’s seen too many athletes fall through the cracks due to a lack of finances.

“I think it’s the right thing to do to give these kids the same opportunity regardless of their financial situation.”

Unlike programs like Jumpstart, which provide funding primarily for house-league or entry level only, Empower Play focuses on competitive level sports and elite arts programs, which can be extremely costly, Holmes said.

Recreation sports leagues cost families several hundred per season, but playing travel or “rep” can cost thousands, Holmes said. And this doesn’t include equipment.

Since starting in 2014, Empower Play has covered about $14,000 in fees, assisting up to four students every year, Holmes said.

Rather than deal directly with families, Empower Play will seek requests from the leagues, organizations, schools and coaches. Applications are vetted by the five-member board at monthly meetings, Holmes said. The decisions are never easy.

“We want to be able to help everybody, but we have to pick the best in our board’s opinion.”

Empower Play mostly assists athletes, but a quarter of their support goes to artists, Holmes explained. Recently they helped fund a Sarnia student’s registration to an elite dance program in New York City.

“At the end of the day it’s not about them going to the pros, it’s about them gaining the life skills to challenge themselves and overcome obstacles, and realize that hard work equals rewards,” said Holmes. “Sports and arts both do a good job of that for kids of all ages.”

Holmes has big plans for Empower Play, but the focus now is on sustainability, he said.

In an effort to increase revenue streams, the group recently launched Xchangeitnow.com, an online store listing used sports equipment for purchase or trade.

Empower Play also plans a golf tournament and volleyball tournament each summer. This year’s Battle for the Bay volleyball tournament is followed by live music, scheduled for July 13.



WHAT: Battle for the Bay and A Tribute to Summer, in support of Empower Play.

WHEN: July 13, volleyball begins at 8:30 a.m., concert begins at 7 p.m.

WHERE: Valley Axe, 1886 London Line

INFO: To register volleyball teams for Battle for the Bay, visit www.empower-play.com.

A Tribute to Summer features musical guests Full Petty Fever and Sandman. Tickets are $15 advance, $20 at the door. VIP are $25 (advance only). Tickets available at revelree.ca and empower-play.com