By GREGORY ZELLER // Lanier Mason has his game face on.
Yes, his elegant and community-minded solution to a common household problem – the accumulation of used sports equipment clogging closets from coast to coast – was really, technically, when you get down to it, his father’s idea. But it was Mason who ran with the ball, and thanks to his inventiveness and vision, a growing number of student-athletes are getting in the game.
Mason, who earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Molloy College in Rockville Centre back in May, is super-serious about Gear Up Play Hard, the registered 501(c)3 he launched a year ago. After his dad suggested Mason’s sizeable collection of old, perfectly functional spikes and other gear might go to charity, Mason – then a Molloy junior – started knocking around ideas. When he took a class on innovation taught by Nomorobo founder Aaron Ross, his synapses snapped to it.
“I’d made significant headway in fleshing out the organization’s mission as a whole,” Mason noted. “Aaron really pushed me to get things started.”
In October 2014, Mason started by registering Gear Up Play Hard to collect equipment donations and get them to kids in need. He’s been locked in ever since. Now studying for the CPA exam and preparing for “the next logical step in my career process,” he definitely sees his burgeoning charity – and the opportunity to remove barriers preventing less-fortunate students from participating in athletics – as a noble pursuit.
“Charity is something that you do long-term, regardless of career,” Mason noted. “This is an issue I’ve seen firsthand. From that perspective, I will certainly always be involved with it.”
The charity has already been bolstered by two “fairly significant” donations, according to the founder. The first came from a former coach of the Long Island Astros, a Nassau County stable of traveling baseball teams that play in leagues throughout Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Brooklyn and Queens. That donation, received around the end of 2014, included bats, gloves, baseballs and a trove of other baseball gear.
Bookending a number of what Mason called “one-off donations,” a second large boost came in June from Bethpage High School, which hosted a student soccer tournament and, in lieu of entry fees, accepted donations of sporting equipment to be gifted to Gear Up Play Hard.
“They did very well,” Mason noted. “Everything from basketballs to lacrosse helmets to youth soccer cleats.”
As it stockpiles gear and requests for it, Mason’s one-man-show continues to refine its process. A list of acceptable donation items is posted on Gear Up Play Hard’s website, highlighted by “certain sports that are more sensitive to high equipment costs,” according to Mason.
“Baseball and softball have relatively high startup costs, with gloves and batting helmets and other equipment,” he said. “Football and hockey tend to be up there, also, with hockey sticks and shoulder pads.”
Other sports tend to have lower participation thresholds – from experience, Mason knows to run cross country “you just need running shoes and attitude” – but an individual need can come from anywhere, in any sport. Gear Up Play Hard’s focus so far has been on school districts “in areas where poverty rates tend to be high and access to this equipment is difficult,” Mason said.
While it does accept those individual “one-off” donations and is still small enough to answer the occasional individual request, the charity’s main model is to partner directly with schools and athletic organizations to create a “channel to the athletes in need,” Mason added. The idea is to fulfill equipment requests at the beginning of each season and then collect donations of “new” old equipment at the end, gifted by players and collected by coaches.
The model not only meets seasonal demand while replenishing Gear Up Play Hard’s supplies, it helps Mason address the charity’s second-biggest concern.
“If requesting equipment is made too easy, there may be people who make requests for the wrong reasons,” he noted. “Going through a coach or a school or an established league standardizes the requests, rather than just taking them haphazardly.”
Wherever the requests come from, the organization’s No. 1 concern will always be confidentiality, according to Mason.
“The athletes themselves don’t need to feel like charity cases,” he said. “Kids just want to play. There are those who might take advantage of that information to poke fun at kids who don’t have the same opportunities, so we’re sensitive to that.”
Mason is also sensitive to the idea that huge overhead is a rough start for any charity, which is why he works alone – and why he ponied up the $1,500 needed to secure the 501(c)3 certification and otherwise get Gear Up Play Hard warmed up.
“Somebody needed to back the cause,” he said. “I didn’t want any of the donations to go to overhead, especially on the front end, so I kind of took the initiative and put in my own money. Fifteen hundred really isn’t that much.”
However, Mason is aware that if Gear Up Play Hard is going to grow, he’s going to need teammates – plus there’s that whole accounting career he’s been working toward. So he’s actively organizing a board of directors and may look to hire some actual staff in 2016, depending on how quickly things progress.
“One thing that’s really important is having a team that can manage the day-to-day operations,” he said. “I’d like to ultimately automate the whole process of requesting equipment through the schools and fulfilling the requests.
“We’re a startup like any other startup, and building that management team for the long-term is important,” Mason added. “But whatever else happens, I’ll always be involved, because it’s a cause I genuinely believe in.”
Gear Up Play Hard
What’s It? Not-for-profit pairing sports-equipment donors and athletes in need
Brought To You By: Molloy College graduate Lanier Mason (with kudos to his father, who thought it up)
All In: $1,500 of Lanier’s own money, just “to get the ball rolling” (wink, wink)
Status: Game on