The Stuff of Dreams

For 30 years, Sports Central has been supplying sports equipment to underserved children and youth

Do you have warm memories of playing a team sport or games with friends at a young age? What if you couldn’t afford the sports equipment necessary to enable your child(ren) to play on a team? For most of us, even used equipment would be appreciated.

“Very little was thrown away back then,” says Sport Central’s executive director, Sheldon Oleksyn, who began working at the sports equipment-focused organization seven years ago. “We just didn’t have any money. Everything we received was used as much as possible, so we did a lot of repairs.”

To this day, Sports Central continues that tradition of fixing and repairing, keeping an area in the back of their main warehouse for a number of industrial sewing machines. The group patches gloves and goalie pads, goalie bags and more in their quest to refurbish and redistribute sports equipment to disadvantaged children. Formed in 1991, the volunteer organization has put new and used gear into the hands of more than 180,000 low-income kids.

“Everybody here has a common belief in the power of sport to build better people,” Oleksyn says. “We all have that personal experience and can tell stories about the discipline and commitment that can be gained by applying yourselves. I always say to my own boys that one of the greatest lessons sport can teach is how to lose well. In sport you lose as much as you win, and when it comes to being resilient that’s an important lesson to learn.”

The genesis of Sports Central can be traced to Highlands Sporting Goods, an equipment shop managed by Bob Sangster. When it was converted to a charity, Sangster stayed on for a few years with the initial crew of volunteers, and the building was finally purchased with the help of many donors and fundraisers. Now, with a separate warehouse and 30 drop-off locations around the city, Sports Central is able to help more than just Edmonton kids with their sports equipment needs.

“Our warehouse bike shop has over 3,000 bikes go through it every year,” notes Oleksyn, who says that pre- pandemic they were helping as many as 10,000 kids a year in all sports. “We give out maybe 2,500 of the bikes we receive. There are probably 500 to 700 bikes that we’ll send to India, Africa, places like that, older-style bikes that are still good, but not something that local kids would readily accept or be proud to ride to school with.”

In a sense, their bike operation indicates a future path for the charity. As Oleksyn points out, Edmonton is ahead of the curve with Sports Central, naming Stettler’s Gear Up and Peace River’s Pawatum Program and the Calgary Flames Sports Bank as three of the few sister programs he can name. Now other cities are coming to Oleksyn and Sports Central for advice on how to set up their own.

“We’re in discussions with a group who have asked to use our name and become Sports Central Saskatchewan. They want the logo, the brand, and access to our best practices and templates, all the things that we’ve established over 30 years,” Oleksyn says. “We’ve given them permission and now I think it’s just a matter of time before Winnipeg, Regina, maybe Vancouver will also follow. And it’s really amazing because we’re not franchising, we’re not selling anything, we’re just trying to help kids as best we can so none are left behind.”

This story comes from the Winter 2021 edition of Legacy in Action. Browse the full magazine here.