Oct. 26 2017 12:46 AM

New in Town: Kalea Sanford (left) is the founder of Sports Bin, a series of sports equipment containers that have been set up in three Lansing-area parks. One of her partners on the project is former MSU Men’s Basketball and NBA player Andre Hutson.

This summer, three Lansing-area public parks became testing grounds for Sports Bin, a new program that encourages physical activity and team sports by providing free sports gear onsite. The idea is simple: each of three parks — Frances Park in Lansing’s Moores Park Neighborhood, Ferris Park in downtown Lansing and Valley Farms Park in downtown DeWitt — has a small wooden roost stocked with a supply of sporting equipment. Users are encouraged to borrow the basketballs, soccer balls, Frisbees or volleyballs, and return them when they’re done kicking, hurling or smashing them around. Key phrase: “return them.”

“It has been a challenge to keep the bins full,” said Kalea Sanford, creator of the Sports Bins. “I knew that (theft) would be a part of it when I began the project, but I didn't want that to hinder the benefits of the program. Someone is always going to create challenges for anything new. And if they need a ball, then by all means, take it home, I suppose.”

Sanford got the idea earlier this year when she was researching two free reading programs: Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which provides free books to preschool-age children, and Little Free Library, which has grown from a few dozen boxes in the Midwest four years ago into over 50,000 spots in all 50 states and 70 countries today. Sports Bins are most similar to Little Free Libraries in that they’re physical locations made of wood that have an inherent “give one, take one” ethos.

“There’s a social responsibility component built in for sure, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the amount of use the bins have been getting and how little loss there’s actually been,” Sanford said. “We were restocking the Valley Farms bin, and we ran into a couple of guys playing basketball. They said they had forgotten their own basketball and saw the one in the bin so they were able to play. Their exact quote: ‘You are awesome.’” Sanford built a budget in for replacing lost and worn-out equipment up to three times in a season, or about every four to six weeks during the warm weather season; this year’s extended heat wave has kept the Sports Bins busy through mid-fall. Each ball is inscribed with the “Sports Bin” moniker and its home park, making it obvious where it belongs.

“We often see that sometimes the only barrier standing in the way of people playing in the park is the simple lack of a ball,” Sanford said.

“This is a way to give those young people an opportunity to engage with each other in physical activity, and maybe try out a new sport that they may be unfamiliar with.”

Sanford grew up in rural Manitou Beach, Michigan, graduated from nearby Onsted High School and moved to East Lansing when she was accepted to MSU. She graduated with degrees in kinesiology and health promotion, and landed a gig at the YMCA Wellness Center in downtown Lansing where she taught classes and worked as a fitness trainer. She’s held that job for over 11 years, but started spending more time at home after her second daughter was born last year. Her research into the free reading programs happened during some rare downtime, which in turn led to her epiphany moment.

“I was thinking about what I’m passionate about, which has always been health and fitness, and it just came to me,” Sanford said. “Then it was just a matter of figuring out how I can combine that passion with the Little Free Library concept, and the Sports Bin was born.”

She first contacted Lansing Parks and Recreation director Brett Kaschinske with her idea, with whom she had a previous working relationship. Once he was on board, Sanford went after another local sports world contact: Mike Price, co-founder of the Greater Lansing Sports Authority, a group that’s working to build Lansing into a sports tourism destination. Finally, she reached out to Andre Hutson, a member of the 2000 MSU men’s basketball championship team who went on to play nine seasons in the NBA before opening Conquest Health and Fitness Foundation in DeWitt. Then it was just a matter of getting her husband, Waylon Sanford, to build the actual bins, and voila: play for no pay.

Building on this year’s success, Sanford said more Lansing-area parks will get Sports Bins next year, but those spots have yet to be determined. She also plans to start expanding the services to include groups that will organize teams at each location to use all of the equipment. This year’s pilot program is set to run through next month, after which the bins will take a break until spring when the new elements will be added.

“The bins will be at the parks through the winter, but we won’t stock them with equipment,” Sanford said. “You can't really kick a ball in the snow.”