January 16, 2019
- Randy Colema Photography
“What’s next?” This was the question bouncing around in the back of his mind when Tim McLaughlin ’86 accepted an invitation in 2011 from personal friend Wes Welker (at that time playing pro football with the New England Patriots) to tour the Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) athletic facilities. As donors of the Wes Welker Foundation, Tim and his wife, Liz, were invited to see how their support was helping serve OKCPS kids.
Throughout his 30-year career, McLaughlin had worked alongside family members to grow their family-owned company, which was in the process of a large-scale merger. He had been considering what challenge to take on in the next phase of his life but had no idea what was in store for him on that day.
Identifying a school district’s needs
Oklahoma City Public Schools is the largest school district in the state, serving 46,000 students with very diverse backgrounds and needs and representing Oklahoma City’s most vulnerable youth. While the school district was doing everything possible to provide students the basic resources to have a safe and productive classroom experience, the resources did not exist to invest in extracurricular programs. As a result, athletic facilities had fallen into an extreme state of disrepair. At the time of the Welker group tour, only about six of 42 district athletic fields were even playable, and OKCPS sport participation trailed the national average by more than 25%.
A strong believer in sports as a proven motivator to get kids to school more focused on attendance and grades, McLaughlin did the quick math and realized more than 3,500 OKCPS students annually could/would/should be on a team—if only inspired to do so. But without a safe field to play on or the basic equipment to compete, it was easy to see why kids weren’t lining up to join teams.
As a board member of the OKC Police Athletic League, McLaughlin was aware of juvenile crime rates, gang growth, and poverty factors impacting OKCPS youth, so seeing the state of district athletic facilities with the Welker group brought it all full circle.
Accompanying them on the tour was Keith Sinor, the newly named district director of athletics for Oklahoma City Public Schools. As a former OKCPS student, teacher, and coach, he had a master plan to bolster athletics in the district, starting with the renovation of middle- and high-school athletic fields and providing mentors for every coach and athlete in the district.
What he did not know yet was how that would happen. His meeting Liz and Tim McLaughlin that day was an answered prayer, in every sense of the word.
Along the tour, as the group stood outside Jefferson Middle School, someone mentioned their athletic field, and McLaughlin asked, “Where?” He was told he was standing on it: a patch of bare, cracked red earth littered with rocks and tufts of weeds and grass. A drainage ditch ran through the baseball field, which had no fence and only a rusty backstop. The football field had no goal posts, no yardage markers, and no bleachers of any kind.
McLaughlin had never seen athletic facilities in such horrible condition. Sadly, it was consistent across the district. It had been decades since most athletic fields had been properly maintained or improved.
McLaughlin’s first thought was, “What message are we sending these kids? How can they believe we care if we’re not showing them we care?”
McLaughlin’s second thought was he and Liz wanted to help. With a lifelong passion for sports and an intense belief that sports can play a critical role in helping more kids enjoy their school experience and better prepare them for life beyond school, McLaughlin now had the answer to his question, “What’s next?”
Athletics, personal growth, and the health of a community
The McLaughlins weren’t the first to realize that athletic participation teaches kids valuable life skills like teamwork, discipline, time management, goal setting, and more. Sports heighten confidence, build character, and give kids a sense of identity and self-worth. Sports also require kids to run, be active, and strengthen their bodies. Time spent in athletic activities keeps kids off the streets and out of gangs. If they play, they stay, and if they stay, they graduate.
The McLaughlins created Fields & Futures in 2012, committing to renovate and maintain 42 OKCPS athletic fields, giving all students a new home-field advantage.
McLaughlin quickly rallied a team of resource partners to help bring the vision to life, providing much-needed support and services to the district’s 250+ coaches. Today, that partner group—including the Wes Welker Foundation, Cleats for Kids, OKC Police Athletic League, and others—is helping fill the gaps to provide OKCPS students the opportunities they deserve.
A daunting and ever-expanding task
The cost to renovate athletic fields ranges from $300,000 to $1.5 million each. With more than 40 fields in need of renovation, it was a daunting task.
Beginning with Jefferson Middle School in 2012, McLaughlin, with the support of several strategic partners, proved the concept: If we build it, they will come. The school district contributed $60,000 for fencing. The Wes Welker Foundation donated $25,000 for new equipment. Cimarron Construction oversaw all field construction and provided critical labor and other services at cost or for free. Others donated money, bought signs, or planted trees. The result: three new fields for football/soccer, baseball, and softball. The impact was immediate.
Understanding the need to maintain the fields once built, Fields & Futures also created an endowment to support future maintenance and upkeep costs.
But once the fields at Jefferson Middle School were completed, McLaughlin realized they couldn’t stop there. It was clear the original mission to build fields had to be expanded to include focused support for coaches and opportunities for families and community to re-engage with each campus. The result: Build. Inspire. Empower. These three strategic pillars create the environment needed to grow student participation in sports and bring hope and restoration to Oklahoma City’s core.
The organization began to involve each school community in the planning process, giving each school a sense of ownership in their project.
Another critical step was to identify volunteers and program partners who could bring specific expertise to the project, such as professional development for coaches and mentoring and college counseling for students. McLaughlin’s close friend and Phi Delta Theta fraternity brother Larry Augustus ’84 says Fields & Futures has been very good at identifying and partnering with organizations in the community that have similar goals. Augustus says Fields & Futures goes a step further by offering support and guidance to those organizations, creating synergy around the goal and making each other stronger through collaboration.
Next was outreach to local and national funding partners to help finance the effort. According to Augustus, “Tim’s commitment and his family’s commitment to this community [are] infectious. They get people excited about supporting this work.” Within a short time, McLaughlin and his team had galvanized the Oklahoma City community as well as the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation behind this project. Every dollar raised by Fields & Futures goes to build fields and to the endowment for their upkeep. One hundred percent of the organization’s overhead is funded by a private grant.
The phenomenal impacts of philanthropy
Six years and 22 fields later, the results created by Fields & Futures and all it represents can’t be ignored. Among students involved in team sports, truancy has been reduced by an average of seven days each school year, the average GPA has risen by 25%, and the graduation rate for student-athletes has risen to 99%.
Beyond the stated goals and accomplishments, the initiative has yielded many unanticipated benefits. There is a feeling of optimism and forward momentum across the Oklahoma City Public Schools district. Augustus says that the philanthropic community has come together to form closer partnerships with inner-city communities and that inner-city residents feel like people really care about them.
Another benefit has been the involvement of inner-city families in the life of the schools. Parents who were intimidated and would not enter the schools feel “safe” attending games and meeting each other on the athletics fields. As they have begun to feel comfortable participating in athletic events, parents have developed a comfort level participating in other events at school. New lines of communication have opened up between parents and teachers, creating a stronger sense of unity for everyone involved.
The development of athletic teams has created an exciting and measurable multiplier effect. Where cheer was not a sanctioned sport prior to this work, Fields & Futures is happy to report there are now close to 300 cheer participants across the district, and all are held to the same attendance and grade requirements of other district athletes. Participation in school band programs has also increased, with more students now involved at athletic events. Concessions have popped up at games to raise money for student groups. Kids walk taller, smile bigger, and feel a renewed sense of pride and hope—all things that seem so obvious to some but are just now gaining ground for OKCPS schools and communities.
Each day brings new opportunities and challenges. A few years ago, Fields & Futures was approached with a request to start a youth sports league to prepare elementary-school-age kids for middle school sports. Fields & Futures partnered with the OKC Police Athletic League and Oklahoma City Parks and Recreation to recruit and train 500 volunteer coaches and to secure funding for a sustainable elementary league. Today, 2,900 kids play on teams at 46 of the 52 OKCPS elementary schools.
McLaughlin and Fields & Futures have received recognition from numerous organizations for their efforts. But Augustus says what fuels and drives McLaughlin and his family is results, not recognition. And while they would like to see change happen faster, they feel proud of what has already been accomplished. McLaughlin’s vision and ability to see what is required to realize it have been crucial to that success.
Sinor has said of McLaughlin, “A lot of people want to do good things, but he actually does good things. Big difference.”
As Oklahoma City Public Schools continues to transform the district, to help put more students on a better path to graduation and beyond, one can’t help but wonder, “What’s next?”