Carmen DePoalo can teach anyone how to play football. His most rewarding work comes from teaching kids to hold doors for strangers, to tell their mothers they love them, to stay off drugs and keep their grades up.
He schedules Saturday morning practices and orders pizza for afterward because there are no school lunches on Saturdays and he knows all too well a lot of his kids would go hungry otherwise.
When a kid tells him his parents can’t afford to pay the $140 registration fee for a season of Schenectady Belmont Pop Warner Football, he tells them it’s OK, goes home to his wife and asks if they can write another check. The president of the team, George Rose, writes plenty of his own checks, as well.
“I don’t want to say no to a kid,” said DePoalo, the organization’s athletic director. “It’s the hardest thing in the world. We got 10- and 11-year-old kids who aren’t showing up to the field anymore to play. They have a lot of pride, they won’t ask their parents for money. There’s just so many needy families.”
Schenectady’s Pop Warner organization began in 1960, serving boys and girls ages 5 to 14. Fifty-four years later, it’s in jeopardy of disbanding. Families can barely afford the registration fees. Business sponsorships are harder to come by. Liability insurance and facility rentals have gone up. The state’s crackdown on helmet safety has resulted in more helmet regulation and replacement costs.
DePoalo is now fearful the 2014 season, which kicks off Aug. 1, won’t go on. In fact, he often wonders if he could have avoided the whole predicament by just learning to say no.
“I sometimes think someone else should run Pop Warner who has the heart to say, ‘You ain’t got $140, you ain’t playing,’ ” he confessed.
Even with dwindling numbers, the organization is still about 250 kids strong across five divisions and 10 teams. DePoalo and Rose are so fearful 250 kids from Schenectady’s toughest, poorest neighborhoods won’t have anywhere to go from August to November that they have launched a fundraiser on the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe titled “Save Belmont Pop Warner!”
The goal is to raise $40,000. The plea: is to save the group from failing hundreds of troubled youths in Schenectady.
The fundraiser was launched about three weeks ago, DePoalo said, and so far, $680 has been raised. The money would get Schenectady Belmont Pop Warner through the 2014 season, with a bit leftover for next year. It would go toward any number of things — paying referees, facility fees, replacing aging helmets, covering registration fees for families that can’t afford them and paying off uniform and equipment debts.
The biggest expense in recent years has come from the state’s helmet regulations, which now require the organization to send out helmets to be reconditioned and X-rayed for cracks and defects. Any helmet more than 10 years old must be replaced, even if it is without defect. The cost to replace a helmet is anywhere from $75 to $150, DePoalo said.
Local football enthusiast Pat Riccardi founded the organization in 1960. DePoalo and Rose became involved six years later, and Rose took over as president when Riccardi died some time later. In 1976, the team was invited to play in a bowl game in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and won. Over the years, the organization has won seven Pop Warner Super Bowls, with many of its players and cheerleaders going on to become scholar-athletes.
For decades, the organization allowed kids to join for free, despite the fees they had to pay to the Capital District Pop Warner Association. About seven to 10 years ago, DePoalo said, they were finally forced to institute a fee.
They had other ways of raising money, he said. They used to hold one “tag day” a year, which involved sending a few kids to stand outside Price Chopper, a bank or a corner store with a jar asking for donations. They could raise $4,000 in one day that way. But over the years, businesses began asking them to solicit elsewhere, and on some corners, it was just not safe.
“There were others who helped,” DePoalo said. “Mom and pop stores were where we really made our money. The neighborhood bars and corner stores were always very, very good to us. The Albany Pork Store on Albany Street gave us hot dogs and hamburgers for games, but they went out of business years ago. Price Chopper would give us 50 cases of water, but even they have cut way back. The mom and pops have all basically gone.”
Now, after years of taking out of their own pockets to keep kids on the team, DePoalo says they can no longer bankrupt their own families to keep Pop Warner going.
“Football is secondary with us,” he said. “Teaching them to be good citizens is No. 1. They know that if they screw up, they won’t play. If they don’t do well in school on their report cards, they won’t play. Once they realize that, they get their homework done, they stay out of trouble, they feel good. We teach these kids how to do right, how to be good kids. I just don’t want to leave nobody behind. There’s too many bad things to lead them astray.”
To donate to the cause, visit www.gofundme.com/95sa2o or mail a check to Schenectady Belmont Pop Warner, 215 Victory Ave., Schenectady, NY 12307. Carmen DePoalo can be reached at 495-6555.