New gear warehouse provides disadvantaged kids a chance to play sports

gillespie2Without help, 10-year-old Nathan Robinson-Cowan might have been shut out from playing his favourite sport this season.

Everything changed this fall, with the inception of a used equipment warehouse that provides kids from low-income families with free, used sporting goods.

Nathan is one of the first recipients of the recently opened Comrie’s Sports Equipment Bank. It set up shop in mid-August and has serviced a number of families already.

“It means a lot,” Nathan said, smiling. “I’m pretty excited. Very thankful.”

Nathan’s mom, Grace Robinson, says as a single working mother, this type of help makes a big difference because it wouldn’t have been possible for her son to play.

“I don’t work a lot, I work for Transit and I have to work part-time so he can get his life,” Grace said.

Busy times at the equipment bank

Russell Gillespie, the general manager at Comrie’s Sports Equipment Bank in southeast Calgary, says the gear donations have been non-stop.

“I’m already pretty crammed for space. We’re getting donations from all over the place,” Gillespie said.Gillespie1Russell Gillespie, pictured with new hockey player Sarah Lammiman, says he “feels like Santa Claus” as the general manager of the Comrie Sports Equipment Bank because he gets to suit up less-fortunate kids in hockey gear all week.

Photo courtesy of Russell Gillespie

Gillespie said he runs around the city “like a chicken with its head cut off” picking up full donation bins while outfitting new players daily. He is the only employee, working under a board of directors that includes former Calgary Flames general manager Al Coates.

Families in need cannot just show up, however; they must be referred from an outside organization like KidSport or Big Brothers Big Sisters, for example.

Located at 3557 52nd St. S.E. in the community of Erin Woods, the equipment bank accepts donations a few times a week. It is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.

“I have a full day packed full of outfitting kids – I feel like Santa Clause,” Gillespie said.

The Equipment Bank has seen big donations so far. In early Sept., 800 jerseys were donated, and just recently, Brent Stankowski, the CEO of Petrotranz Inc. and Cantega Inc. made a personal donation of $10,000 along with numerous sets of goalie gear. 

Bill Comrie, one of the owners of The Brick, established a similar donation warehouse, Sport Central, 20 years ago in Edmonton when he decided to serve Calgary and southern Alberta communities.

“We’re always looking forward to cash donations, gear donations or volunteers. This program is going to be pretty dependent on volunteer work,” Gillespie said.

Currently donation bins are located: 

  • Lake Bonavista – 1401 Acadia Drive S.E.
  • Edge School for Athletes – 33055 Township Road 250

Giving back is in the future of the Robinsons, as Grace said she plans to get a group together to go to the equipment warehouse and help sort out gear, and she also said she will donate the gear Nathan grows out of back to Comrie’s.

Family dynamic of hockey

Back in the Robinson’s kitchen, Grace prepares spaghetti for her hungry and growing son.

Grace.Nathan1Grace Robinson, a single working mother, says she is thrilled her son will get the chance to play hockey and stay active this winter.

Photo by Neil HiltsWhen asked what he wants to be when he grows up, Nathan, clad in his Calgary Flames Mike Cammalleri jersey (his former favourite player before ‘Cami’ left to New Jersey), utters the obvious, “An NHL player. For the Calgary Flames.”

“I’m in trouble,” Grace says, smiling.

“How?” Nathan asks, puzzled.

“I have to work day and night,” his mother replies.

“It is very important that he is in sports because his dad is not very active in his life. I want to set him up for success, so he’s not one of those kids who is bored and hanging around in the wrong places and wrong crowd,” she later says.

Grace adds, “I will be cheering him on as much as I can and they allow. It’s all I talk about right now.”

What’s available for other families?

In addition to the new gear warehouse, numerous organizations around Calgary provide sport funding to families in need.

KidSport has been running since 1995, and over $5 million has been spent servicing more than 24,000 kids across multiple sports, according to executive director Kevin Webster.

Webster says KidSport has a very easy application process, and last year, 2,700 of 2,800 applicants were accepted.

“We’ve never declined anyone that is qualified – we only decline people that are over the income levels,” Webster said.

“Mom, I’m going to be the next Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but for Calgary,”

– Nathan Robinson-Cowan upon learning about Ryan Nugent Hopkin’s tough journey to the NHL.

“We worked hard to get Comrie’s Sports Equipment Bank off the ground because the two main challenges are cost of registration and cost of equipment,” Webster said.As a member of Hockey Calgary, Nathan was eligible for $700 through the Flames Even Strength program, which is supported by the Flames Foundation for Life and Hockey Calgary. The remaining $250 of the $950 registration fee owed will be paid by Grace through a series of payments.

Cost of hockey

Nathan has only played hockey for fun at the nearby leisure centre – moving into minor hockey will cost more.

At the Atom level (ages nine and 10), the average registration is $1,000 between different associations throughout Calgary. With the cost of equipment, which ranges from about $500 to $1000, the price tag is high, even for many two-income families.

The expense will only grow for Grace and Nathan, as prices rise with each level of minor hockey.

NHL stories of help

Nathan might think he’s one of a few kids who needed help to play hockey, but many NHL standouts were once in the same situation.Nathan110-year-old Nathan Robinson-Cowan is given the chance to play competitive hockey this season after KidSport and the Comrie Sports Equipment Bank covered his registration and equipment costs.

Photo by Neil Hilts

Media reports indicate Chris and Anthony Stewart, Wayne Simmonds and Jamal Mayers all had tough family situations and could barely afford to play hockey.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft and current star centreman for the Edmonton Oilers, also endured hard times.

An Edmonton Journal report indicates after his parents divorced, plus his father’s battle with cancer, “the Nuge” had to take a year off hockey, but many in Burnaby supported him.

When Nathan, who also carries two last names, heard about the struggles of Nugent-Hopkins, he appeared inspired.

“Mom, I’m going to be the next Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but for Calgary,” Nathan said.

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