California; San Mateo — Back as a second-grader, the looming dread of daily morning drop-off would set in as soon as I reluctantly rolled out of bed. Just thinking of leaving the cozy security of home to step into a classroom full of familiar yet distant faces would make my heart sink.
But then, I started playing basketball during recess and it was a game-changer. The joy and ease of shooting hoops with my brother at home translated to the school blacktop. Almost overnight, basketball ignited a burning ambition to perfect my 3-point-shot, provided a crew of buddies to debate Warriors' stats with, and infused a surge of confidence that extended beyond the court.
Fast forward to today -— as a 16-year-old — sports have been an inextricable part of my identity and I’ve loved everything from the adrenaline rush of running the 400m relay to the camaraderie of basketball and baseball. This is just a tiny example of the incredible power of sport and why every kid deserves the shot to experience its magic.
But here's the thing: access to sports is far from equal. Research shows that low-income kids are six times more likely to quit sports due to rising costs. I also personally learned that a local public school, adjacent to the wealthiest zip code in the country, had a total budget of $0 for sports! ZERO. And you know what? The benefits of sports go way beyond the field. Kids who play sports get better grades, and they're healthier, both physically and mentally.
With that lens I started noticing how much great gear was being wasted around me. Bins in our garage were overflowing with outgrown gear. Even my school and travel teams had all of this great equipment just sitting in storage, doing nothing. It got me thinking — why not do something about it? Why not collect all this gear and give it to kids in our community who could really use it?
So that’s exactly what I did.
With the help of a few like-minded friends and family, we raised enough money to buy a storage shed and collected as much sports equipment as possible. We installed the first “Lending Locker'' in East Palo Alto and filled it with all of the gear we had collected. After only a few weeks, they emailed, sharing overwhelming gratitude from the kids using the gear. From then on, I knew we were on to something.
What began as a small idea, has now grown into a global initiative. Today, there are over 115 Lending Lockers filled with sports gear, benefiting over 80,000 underserved kids globally from Menlo Park to Mumbai. The model I've developed, after much trial and error, is simple and scalable, repurposing perfectly usable sports equipment to empower thousands of children to play.
One of my all-time favorite Lending Lockers is at a high school in Richmond, California to support their soccer team. The team was incredibly talented, catching the eyes of college scouts, but didn’t have enough soccer balls for practices. Their coach shared that their Lending Locker played a pivotal role in providing them with practice balls, goals, and even uniforms. This equipment inevitably boosted their confidence and performance during matches. Seeing their success and the potential for college offers is why I continue to do what I do.
But, the journey from Lending Locker 1 to Lending Locker 115 hasn't been easy. Whenever I'm hustling for funds or delivering my elevator pitch to new potential partners, I hear hundreds of "no's" for every "yes." But I don’t give up, because I know that every kid's right to play is on the line.
Ultimately, it’s been incredible to fan this initial spark into a full-blown fire, thanks to the support of countless individuals and organizations that have stepped up with their resources and platforms. Earning the distinction of a Prudential Emerging Visionary has been a game-changer, not only granting $5,000 towards expanding Lending Lockers to even more schools, but to collaborate with fellow young change-makers. And winning an ESPY as a National Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Award honoree – aside from rubbing shoulders with my athlete idols (yes, I got to strut the red carpet with Patrick Mahomes!), gave me access to the world of corporate giving – leading to a 1:1 with the Chief Brand officer of Gatorade/PepsiCo who came up to me at the ESPYS after party and asked me, “How can Gatorade help?”
As I reflect on the impact of Lending Lockers so far, I also look forward to other ways to level the playing field. I hope to inspire and empower other kids to see something, an inequity or injustice, and do something about it. Oh, and thankfully I no longer dread morning drop-off!
Rishan Patel (he/him) is a Junior at Junipero Serra High School in California. He is a youth sports equity activist and CEO/co-founder of Alley-Oop Kids. Follow him on (Instagram/Twitter). @alleyoopkids.
Edited by Nykeya Woods