This series of stories, “Grassroots Success: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods,” explores how meaningful impact on our communities grows from the ground up. Support for “Grassroots Success” is provided by Neighborhood Connections.
Alex Robertson is smart, ambitious, and successful. And after leaving Glenville to attend Ivy League Columbia University in New York City, he returned home to share what he has gleaned and improve his neighborhood by making it more fun.
Robertson threw a birthday party for his entire community when he first formed the pop-up game and event organization Recess Cleveland (recessCLE). Its first event was held on his 31st birthday, August 9, 2015.
“Birthdays are always a good time to get people out to an event,” says Robertson. “I told my friend, for my birthday I want to throw dodge balls at you.”
Approximately 50 people showed up. They divided the group into age 21 and under and age 22 and older.
”The highlight of the day was a 65-year-old grandma pitching to five-year-old kids,” Robertson says. “When she was kicking, she kicked a line-drive to the outfield. So all the kids were like, ‘Granny’s got legs!’ We did get her a designated runner, though.”
The organization throws pop-up recess events at community functions, block parties, etc. It also hosts a monthly Glenville Community Freecess and potluck where everyone donates food or a toy or game.
“We bring the meat, volunteers bring sides, and residents bring chips and sodas,” Robertson says. “We go all out; it’s a lot of fun. I tell people, ‘Send us your kids. They’ll leave tired and full.’”
RecessCLE began by throwing last minute events with no more than a 48-hour notice, although Robertson is trying to give people more time now. The events are a free-for-all for the first hour as people show up, then they decide which sports or games to play. It may include dodge ball, kickball, and soccer with tug-o-war, hula-hooping, and jumping rope contests between. The whole event lasts more than four hours.
”It ends when the lights go out, or when the mosquitoes get to us,” he says, adding that people typically bring their entire families, with ages ranging from five to 60.
“I pull the double-dutch jump ropes out, and the parents’ faces light up. The kids may get two jumps in before the ropes hit the ground, and the parents have to show them how it’s done. I try to get everyone involved by taking old school games and bringing them to new school teenagers.”
The inspiration to form the community organization, which includes Robertson and three volunteers, was rooted deep in his childhood. He attended Glenville’s St. Aloysius School through fifth grade, then University School in Shaker Heights before moving to New York and earning his degree from Columbia University. The full-time web designer and digital marketing consultant moved back to Glenville and began working with non-profits.
He remembered the contrast between finding things to do in the parking lot during recess at the inner-city St. Aloysius and the structured recess games organized for large groups at the suburban University School.
“I met kids who had never played dodge ball,” he says. “I wanted to give them something that I felt was important to me when I was a kid.”
Neighborhood Connections awarded Robertson a $3,000 grant in February, which he used to replace old equipment and items that were stolen. He also purchased 12 body zorb balls, which he says are the most popular item with children.
”The kids just have a blast with those.”
In addition, he’s launched a crowd-funding campaign to cover the costs of food and moving and replacing equipment. Currently, the organization supplies food for 40 to 50 people at their Freecess events, but 50 to 70 people typically show up.
Robertson branched out further by offering his recessCLE to schools. For $350, he brings his equipment and hosts who ensure all kids are included. They typically offer a free-style environment on one side of the gym and an organized activity on the other. The move was sparked after he volunteered at Patrick Henry School, where he discovered kids sitting on the bleachers doing nothing during what should have been recess due to a lack of adults to monitor them outside.
Robertson is also in the planning stages of launching Recess for a Cause. He hopes to partner with local non-profits to help them raise money and attention for their causes through his recess events.
In the meantime, the group has grown their contact base and is also attempting to branch out into more areas. They held their first Detroit Shoreway area event recently.
“We’re trying to bridge communities together,” Robertson says. “When we throw an event, we don’t want just members of their community to attend. Our goal is changing strangers into friends.”