Free to Play Demand Outpaces Funding

September 25, 2017

Shai Football

In mid-August, the Children's Foundation Free to Play Program found itself in the disquieting position of exhausting funding for 2017, even though fall registrations hadn't even begun. This was significantly earlier than when funds have run out in the past, typically by mid- to late September.

Free to Play helps low-income families fund activities for their children, including playing sports, going to camp, or participating in the arts. “Being able to participate in recreational activities means children are being active, taking part in new life experiences, learning valuable social skills, developing friendships, and engaging in their community,” says Executive Director Glenna Banda. “It’s difficult to imagine saying no to financial assistance that would allow a child to access these important personal development opportunities, and running out of funding so early in the year is a serious cause for concern for the Foundation."

With the increase in demand continuing to outpace funding, the Foundation made the difficult decision in August to increase the 2017 Free to Play budget by $30,000 in the hopes of covering most, if not all, of the remaining summer and fall activities. With an already tight budget for the year, this decision meant the Foundation might need to access their reserve fund to make this possible.

"Ideally we could raise an additional $30,000 to help with this budget shortfall so that we don’t have to access our reserve, but we’re thankful it’s there if we need it. The real challenge for us is to keep this important service sustainable and to have the funding available again next year.” Fortunately, a few committed donors and partners stepped up to help with some of this shortfall, plus the City of Guelph committed an additional $8,000 to support City fall activities.

Thanks to the increased financial commitment made in August, we were able to continue providing funding right up to September 15th, at which time the funding ran out again.  "We are so grateful to the donors who helped us get to mid-September, however we know that our work is still cut out for us to ensure we have enough funding to cover us from year to year, especially as the demand continues to substantially grow, says Program Director Karyn Kirkwood."

Families are eligible for Free to Play if their household income falls below Statistics Canada low-income cut-off level. As an example, a family of three would have an income below $32,844. The average income of Free to Play families is approximately $18,000, so we know we are helping those most in need in our community. Over 10,000 children and youth in Guelph and Wellington are living in low-income situations and are financially eligible for the program. “We want to ensure that the families who need this program know that it’s here. We’ve been working hard to connect with them through social service agencies and recreation providers,” says Program Director Karyn Kirkwood. “The good news is that it’s working, but the challenge is obviously keeping up with this increase in demand financially.”

This year, over 1,900 activities have been funded through Free to Play, the most popular activities being camp, swimming and soccer. Overall, $318,000 in financial assistance has been distributed through the Free to Play Program, along with over $31,000 that the Foundation has facilitated as the local Canadian Tire Jumpstart partner. Free to Play receives support from community partners including the City of Guelph, the County of Wellington and fee-waiving partnerships with local recreation providers.

One mom who has received funding reflected on her experience, “The additional benefits aside from the hard skills he’s acquired from participating in organized sports are invaluable and we are very grateful. My son has shown improvements in his self-esteem and communication skills and is happier overall. I’d also just like to add how the staff have always treated me with courtesy and respect and never looked or talked down to me. That makes having to access this sort of thing much more accessible.”

Our goal is to help kids reach their full potential. Our dream is to one day be able to provide funds all the way up to December 31st each year!