Tickets for Kids Promotes Inclusion, Opportunities for At-risk Youth



Thanks to Tickets for Kids Charities and its supporters, tens of thousands of local children have been able to enjoy cultural, sports and other experiences that may not have been accessible to them otherwise. We spoke with Executive Director Jason Riley about the concept behind this nonprofit, which started in Pittsburgh in 1994 and eventually merged with several other like-minded organizations. Pittsburgh remains its headquarters and the market with the greatest impact. The nonprofit is working to bridge the gap so that there is more equitable access for at-risk children to all the cool events and activities that Pittsburgh has to offer.


North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the concept behind Tickets for Kids?

Jason Riley (Riley): To make sure that low income and at-risk kids have access to the inspiration, the education, the sense of inclusion, that takes place inside ticketed venues and events—everything from theater, museums, science centers, ballparks, and family entertainment venues. We acquire donated tickets and place them through a network of youth-service nonprofit partners, all of whom are working with a vulnerable population of children who may not have access to these opportunities.


NHM: Are the tickets provided for free or does the requesting agency have to pay a reduced cost for them?


Riley: There is no cost. Once an agency becomes a partner with Tickets for Kids, they go through a training and have access to an online portal. Then they put requests in there, manage requests, provide reports and feedback from the kids and other data we can give to the ticket donors.


NHM: Who supplies the tickets?


Riley: All tickets are donated. Before the pandemic, in the Pittsburgh market, we were providing 70,000 tickets to kids just in this region. They come from the venues themselves, from promoters, from sports teams, etc. Individuals will also donate tickets, and season tickets holders can donate tickets.


NHM: How many agencies do you work with, and what are some examples?


Riley: In Pittsburgh, there are 436 agencies, including Big Brothers Big Sisters, YMCA, homeless shelters, mentoring groups, after school programs, and religiously affiliated youth programs.


NHM: What are the criteria for agency eligibility?


Riley: They need to have 70 percent or more of the kids in service considered low income or at-risk.


NHM: Since your inception, about how many kids have received tickets, or how many tickets have you given out?


Riley: We have distributed 3,231,014 tickets since 1994, with a value of $71,055,608.


NHM: Is Pittsburgh a good market for this type of nonprofit?


Riley: Absolutely; not only does Pittsburgh have such a diverse array of opportunities for cultural, sporting and other community gathering experiences, it’s also an incredibly generous city. You have this sense of a caring culture in the region that makes something like Tickets for Kids possible.


NHM: So everything was shut down last year during COVID—how were you able to revamp Tickets for Kids? Did you hold virtual events, and was it challenging?


Riley: There were challenges, but they were the same ones that all of our partners were facing. What makes Tickets for Kids work is the network we’ve built over 27 years, specifically, the network of ticket providers and those serving the youth in our region. All the venues started creating virtual content so we started to partner with them to get those to the youth-serving social service partners in the region and created original content and live virtual experiences. We did Bollywood dance lessons, behind-the-scenes tours with the Pittsburgh Ballet, dance lessons with the Pittsburgh Ballet, and educational courses with Phipps. And then we looked to our partners who had safe outdoor opportunities, like Beechwood Nature Center for guided hikes, and then this spring, we saw a lot of in-person activity return.


NHM: What is the ConnectAbility program?


Riley: It is a pilot program we started just before the pandemic, specifically in the Pittsburgh market, where we look to create additional opportunities for kids on the autism spectrum or those who have other developmental disabilities. We find more tailored experiences that will be safe and comfortable for them, such as modified theater performances that are sensory-friendly.


NHM: What, ideally, do children get out of the ability to attend a cultural or sporting event? Why is this important to their development?


Riley: I’ll tell you what the kids tell me through letters—it’s a sense of inclusion. We so undervalue what it means to feel included. So many of these kids live in the shadows of these institutions and never feel they can go inside; it wasn’t a space for them. I received a letter from a kid who went to a Pirates game, who said it was amazing to know there are people who care, that it was good to feel like a kid, and it made him feel good about life again. That stopped me in my tracks. Who would think a baseball game could be that powerful?


NHM: How can individuals or community organizations help?


Riley: We are only in existence because every year there are generous donors who fund our program, including many foundations. Individual contributions are a great way to make an impact. A $25 donation provides nine tickets for kids to experience the arts, sports or family entertainment, so that is a fantastic way for people to support the Tickets for Kids mission.


NHM: What feedback have you received directly from Tickets for Kids' recipients?


Riley: After every event, an agency will fill out a post-event report, including an anecdotal report. They will send in letters from kids or families, and often, it’s a parent and child or a caregiver and child talking about the opportunity to spend a day together experiencing something new. It leads to other conversations and how meaningful that is. So many letters are along the vein of feeling included: so many kids talk about being able to have conversations with peers, with classmates, about what they saw and experienced.


Oftentimes, it’s clear that there were experiences that caused kids to think in new ways about what their future or interests might be. I remember one letter in particular; we sent a lot of kids to the Taylor Swift concert. One kid was right by the stage and was blown away by the concert, but what he talked about was being fascinated by stagehands who were moving props around and started asking tons of questions about this being something that he would be interested in and never thought could be a future opportunity.


NHM: Ideally, what do you want these participants to look back and think about Tickets for Kids?


Riley: I would like for them to look back and say, ‘Somebody cared enough to include me. How will I include others?’


To learn more or to donate tickets, visit www.ticketsforkids.org.

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