A dozen drawings lined the wall next to Max Levitt’s lofted bed in his Syracuse fraternity house.
They came from 12 kids at a small school near the Singita Game Reserve in eastern South Africa that his family visited on vacation. Levitt, a Rockville native, said he had delivered two duffel bags of sporting equipment to the children, whose lone activity before then was chasing one another around the hot blacktop barefoot.
It became the first of many donations for Levitt, who five years later runs a nonprofit that distributes sporting equipment to underprivileged kids in the Washington and Baltimore areas. Levitt believes his organization, Leveling the Playing Field Inc., is the largest multisport equipment donation business in the country.
While the 2010 vacation wasn’t designed as a community service trip, Levitt knew the surrounding villages could use the help. So he reached out to about six high school friends the summer before his senior year at Syracuse to gather as much sporting equipment as he could take on the flight.
“The impact it had on that school and those teachers and those kids was insane,” Levitt said. “Just like how excited they were and how shocked they were to get this stuff. It was so simple to have done for me.”
He had considered working as a sports agent or in public relations, but the expressions on the kids’ faces in the small African village made him reconsider.
“That’s when I first kind of started thinking … ‘maybe this the road I want to go to in sports,'” Levitt said. “I can have security. I can be my own boss. I can do good things for the community. A lot of people focus on the negative in sports, but I can shift the focus to the positive.”
Levitt has watched his idea blossom — the nonprofit has distributed more than $900,000 of equipment to programs in the area since November 2012.
As Levitt sat at his desk as a sales associate at LivingSocial in late May 2013, his cellphone started to ring. He sneaked away to the stairwell, which had become his secondary office, to answer a call that gave him the push he needed to go all in.
On the other end was D.C. United, which had found Levitt online and wanted to do a collection drive with him at a game. At the time, Levitt had been working in sales for about two years, operating Leveling the Playing Field on the side.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I’m not even doing this full time, and it’s grown to the point where a professional soccer team has found me organically and wants to do a collection,'” Levitt said. “It was at that moment when I decided I was doing this full time. I could see that this was going to work.”
He put in his two weeks’ notice at LivingSocial shortly after that phone conversation.
It was a welcome reprieve for Levitt, who had been racing home to his parents’ basement — from which he operated the one-man company — from Chinatown at 5:30 p.m. each day, only to stay up until midnight making spreadsheets, sending emails and calling universities that might become donors and organizations looking for equipment.
“No one was listening to me,” Levitt said. “I hadn’t made any donations. I didn’t have a warehouse. I didn’t have a very good website. There wasn’t a lot to Leveling the Playing Field at that point. It was really still an idea. There was no proof of concept.”
So he invested $5,000 from his savings, using some of the money to buy a dozen plastic bins from Target to set up collections. He designed a website, too. And while he called it “one of the worst websites I’ve ever seen,” it was functional.
He turned his focus from colleges to the local area, calling churches, synagogues, community centers, swimming pools and schools. The bins he set up in the community began to fill up — cluttering his parents’ basement.
“We looked like a Goodwill agency,” said Kay Klass, Levitt’s mother. “We nagged him hard, but he kind of humored us through it. I was very happy when he was out on his own. Not just for myself and being able to see the floor again, but really just that he had a little more organization.”
To this day, people still stop by their driveway — even though Levitt has moved out — to drop off equipment they want to donate. About a year ago, Under Armour showed up at his parents’ house, and Klass answered the door.
They said they had some unsold equipment they were supposed to drop off. She told them Levitt had a 4,000-square-foot warehouse in Silver Spring now, but they could put it in the garage for him to come pick up. The worker then turned and pointed to the semi-truck outside. It wouldn’t fit, they said.
‘Can’t imagine anything better’
With the back of a U-Haul filled to the brim with sports equipment June 9, Levitt drove to Baltimore. About a year earlier, he had made his first big donations in the city, dropping off about $50,000 worth of baseball equipment to James Mosher and Hamilton, two youth baseball leagues.
Levitt said Baltimore was an “obvious expansion.” He said more kids are in need of sporting equipment here, where 86 percent of city students received free or reduced lunch in 2014, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center.
Levitt, who hopes to eventually franchise his business model to reach more cities, estimated he travels to Baltimore once a week, sometimes for meetings with potential clients and other days for drop-offs. And because renting a U-Haul for the 45-minute drive gets expensive — he said it averages about $300 a trip with gas — he tries to plan at least four drop-offs per visit.
The first stop on his June 9 trip was Randallstown High School, where athletic director Michael Gelman said he has about $6 to spend per athlete. With football helmets and pads costing more than $100, it isn’t feasible to provide equipment for students on all the school’s teams.
So, when he got an email about Levitt and what he had to offer, Gelman reached out to Levitt within 30 seconds. About two months later, Levitt was carrying bags filled with basketballs, soccer balls and lacrosse sticks, among other equipment, into a storage room at the school.
“This will open up the eyes of the coaches and the kids,” Gelman said. “This is phenomenal. This a blessing. I don’t know what to say. It will offer us opportunities we haven’t had in the past.”
After making a stop at the Parks and People’s storage unit to receive equipment from sports director David Johnson, who had received equipment from Leveling the Playing Field in the past, Levitt drove to the Druid Hill YMCA. Archie Cumberbatch Sr., a coordinator at the organization, had sent Levitt a wish list, but did not get his hopes up.
Then Levitt arrived with a truck full of equipment.
“I’ve been here for 6 1/2 years, nobody ever donated equipment to us, not like that,” Cumberbatch said. “Maybe an item here or an item there, but not a quantity that we had today.”
Cumberbatch said the YMCA has sometimes had to invent games because of its lack of equipment. That won’t be needed anymore.
“You have individuals that want to create an opportunity for the kids but don’t have the funding or the infrastructure to set something up,” Johnson said. “And then what Leveling the Playing Field does is it kind of eliminates the hurdle of trying to get equipment or uniforms or those little things that may just be the only thing that’s keeping you from really starting a successful program and really impacting the community.”
Levitt said it’s rewarding to hear from a child’s parent or coach, who better understand the long-term positive effect sports can have.
“If you are grinding out there to put dinner on the table and you can’t give your kid something as simple as a glove and a ball, that can’t be a great feeling as a parent,” Levitt said. “So seeing how grateful they are to give their kids that opportunity, for me, is almost more gratifying than seeing the kid’s expression.”
But he’ll never forget those drawings that lined his bedroom wall.