The president of the East Boston Pop Warner football program is wholly confident that, for the first time in four years, she will see her players have a full season this fall.
But even with that confidence, Debbie Raso says challenges continue to pile up against her program with increasing costs and decreasing interest from players and families to participate.
Nick Moulaison, owner of Carmella’s Market, an Italian food spot in Eastie, this week donated $500 to the program and is challenging other local businesses to match his gift.
Moulaison’s donation came after area philanthropist Ernie Boch Jr. donated $15,000 to the Boston Bengals, a Pop Warner program that practices at Roxbury’s Clifford Playground, near Mass and Cass, where people roam the streets, visibly buying, selling and using drugs.
The Bengals had been on the verge of collapse due to unsanitary conditions at the park: needles, human feces and other trash. That has led a decline in interest from youth there, making it hard for organizer Domingos DaRosa to fund his program. Boch’s donation helped save it for at least this season.
As of Friday, 13 East Boston players had signed up for the season which starts Aug. 1. For a program to field a team, at least 16 players are needed, but that means they’d play entire games without breaks. The ideal number is 25 per team, Raso said.
Raso has been president since 2019, becoming involved with the program when her granddaughter participated as a cheerleader a decade ago when there were enough players to field five full teams.
A lack of coaches forced Raso to cancel the season in 2021, and then last year, after players lost interest and quit, the president had to fold the 14-under team with two games left in the eight-game season.
“People can’t afford it,” Raso told the Herald on Friday at East Boston Memorial Park, where she operates the program. “Our mission statement is that we don’t turn any kid away. Last year — we have to start the concession stand to make money — [a lot of funds] came out of my and my husband’s pockets because we are doing it for the kids.”
Registration costs are $100 per player, a figure Raso said is among the lowest in the Metropolitan Pop Warner League, which consists of 13 teams from across the city as well as those from Brockton, Cambridge, Quincy and Providence.
But after Aug. 1, registration climbs to $125 per player.
Insurance costs have skyrocketed partly due to conditions of other fields that host teams, and it’s a challenge to get a $12,000 grant from the East Boston Foundation in a timely manner, Raso said. The grant helps cover equipment and other expenses.
“If a kid wants to play football, it’s keeping them off the streets, it’s giving them something to do,” Raso said. “Then I have to scramble to get someone to sponsor them because you need uniforms, you need footballs, you need helmets. It’s something we definitely do because of the love of the kids.”
Moulaison, the Eastie businessman who stepped up with a donation, said he an the Pop Warner and Little League organizations in the neighborhood years before he became a business owner. Fewer players are participating not just due to financial reasons but because of the digital age that we live in, he said.
“Families come to my store every day,” Moulaison said. “A place like mine needs to kick in and start giving back to the community. That’s the way it’s got to be. There are plenty of businesses in the city that are making a lot more money than I am that should be kicking in.”