By Joshua Martoma, Age 16
Today, KidsMates focuses on how participation in sports can drive positive change in the lives of children with incarcerated parents. Our guest is Matt Blodgett, Executive Director and co-founder of Put Me In! -- a nonprofit that provides system-impacted children in California with recurring financial aid to help support their participation in sports. Matt believes that participation in sports is scientifically proven to increase self-esteem, deepen personal resilience, and unlocks a broad range of physical and mental health benefits. Over the next few years, Put Me In! is looking to expand nationally in the coming years.
Matt understands the challenges facing children of incarcerated parents in a deeply personal way. Matt’s father was incarcerated while he was in high school and college. Through football, Matt benefited from the support of his coaches and teammates to help him navigate these challenging times. Matt’s time on the football field instilled many strong skills that would eventually pave his way to Yale and later to a successful career as an investor in high growth technology companies.
Matt has created a unique program that helps many children get and stay involved with sports. I am super excited to have him as KidsMates’ guest today. The new school year is just starting, and it portends a possible return to sports in a post Covid world. Let’s see what Matt thinks will happen and so much more. Please welcome my guest, Mr. Matt Blodgett.
Joshua: Good afternoon, or rather Good morning Matt, as you are on the West Coast. Thank you for joining KidsMates today. Let’s get started. Tell us your story as it relates to the criminal justice system and Put Me In!?
Matt: As a child, my father was incarcerated during my high school and college years. Put Me In! is built from my own experience as a child of an incarcerated parent, where a small-town community enabled me to “get on the field” and play sports during challenging formative years that were adversely impacted by parental incarceration. The impacts of sports – self-esteem, personal resiliency, recurring exposure to coaches and positive adult mentors – built a bridge for me to Yale and a blessed life in San Francisco.
Joshua: Wow, your story would make for an inspiring football movie with a systems-impacted protagonist, kind of like the Blind Side, but we’re so glad you’ve dedicated your talents to helping affected children directly. Let me ask you about how the last year of Covid has impacted Put Me In!, specifically what is the most important thing you or Put Me In! has done in the last 12 months to help children with incarcerated parents?
Matt: “Get started!” We are enrolling and serving our first annual cohort of children and are distributing financial aid to children of incarcerated parents for sports – from football league fees and cleats to softball bats and sports bras. I think the most important aspect of our model is its long-term nature: our financial aid is committed and recurs annually until an enrolled child finishes high school. As a parent of one of our enrolled children defined it, “this really helps us plan for a future with sports.”
Joshua: I agree wholeheartedly with that parent’s view. Continuity is as important as exposure. It can be even worse to start something that you can’t continue. Matt, I want to understand how you think about Put Me In!’s sports focus by asking the question in a slightly different way. Is there anything that people misunderstand about Put Me In!’s mandate that you would like them to know?
Matt: Three things. First, we think of ourselves as investors. While we are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, as a company, we define ourselves as an investment firm – a “venture capital fund that invests in the lives of children.” We are purely focused on efficiently investing in the lives and future outcomes of children of incarcerated parents, through helping them fully access youth sports throughout their childhood and through high school. Second, we’re building for the long-term. When we enroll a child in Put Me In!, we commit to support them with up to $1,000 per year of financial aid for sports that recur each year until they finish high school. We’re really excited to develop these long-term relationships with children and their caregivers and excited to see the long-term impact of sports on an individual basis for the children. Third, our model is efficient, transparent, and collects meaningful data. When we distribute financial aid, we centralize all the funding/equipment purchases from our headquarters. This creates two benefits. One, for the parents/caregivers of enrolled children, we provide a “concierge”style service, staffed by volunteers who are all former college (and one Olympic!) athlete, to help them purchase equipment or pay league fees, that doesn’t require any out of pocket spending/reimbursement cycles for the parent/caregiver. This is a time-saving feature for busy parents/caregivers (in addition to the financial support, we can also save them a trip to the store – many of the parents/caregivers of our enrolled children work 2+ jobs as single parents). Two, for us – over the long term as our enrolled base of children grows this will provide a wealth of data, not to mention good controls.
Joshua: That’s an inspiring vision. One thing I’ve learned from the many talented people like you who KidsMates has interviewed is that everyone has some unique gift that can be used to help solve problems facing system-impacted families. Your experience with investing in growth companies is having a dynamic impact on the allocation of scarce resources, and your results only will improve as you analyze past results. My sister recently interviewed a talented movie producer and my brother interviewed a Harvard-trained lawyer who each has found powerful ways to use their talents helping systems-impacted children. I think your collective examples are positive reminders to all of us about using our skills in socially conscious ways. Matt, given your personal experiences having an incarcerated father, is there anything that you want the world to know about children or families dealing with incarceration?
Matt: The negative mental health impacts of stigma are real, powerful, and lasting for children dealing with parental incarceration. I’m in my early forties, and I still frequently think about and remember feeling those intense moments of shame and stigma as a child, to this date.
Joshua: I understand exactly what you are saying, but I’m not sure everyone is as cognizant of the problems you describe. The “toxic stress” of having an incarcerated parent is only beginning to be recognized. KidsMates website is full of information on this topic, and I would encourage readers to check out our resources if you want to learn more. Matt, do you have any other tip(s) you can share from personal experience?
Matt: Three tips: First, “Flip the script.” Be proud of all you accomplish despite the unique challenges you’ve faced. Be proud of the good decisions you make in life. Just because something shapes you, doesn’t mean it has to define you. Second, find supportive friends you can share your feelings with and open up to them. Don’t bottle up the anger, resentment, or sadness you feel. Third, find an activity – sports, music, dance, arts, writing – that creates a healthy, positive outlet for your feelings and emotions.
Joshua: Matt, you give a lot of wisdom in a few words. Did anyone influence your thoughts on incarceration?
Matt: A class I took at Yale in 1999, taught by Ian Shapiro, called Crime and Punishment. In addition to a deep analysis of the philosophies, legal theories, and practices of incarceration in Western Europe and the United States, it opened my eyes to the “industrialization” of the American penal system, especially how the profit motives of private actors (from the prison-calling systems to for-profit prisons themselves) created a feedback loop of business and special interest lobbying that ultimately contributed meaningfully to draconian drug laws and sentencing standards. In turn, this led to higher incarceration rates and longer sentences, needlessly devastating tens of millions of families and children.
Joshua: It sounds like a class we should all take! I know we don’t have a lot of time left together, so let me ask you one more question in closing. If you were giving a last piece of advice for kids about how they can make a difference, what would you say?
Matt: Write and publish!
Joshua: Ha! I’m on it. I will write up our interview and publish it on the KidsMates site. Thank you, Matt, for joining KidsMates on this virtual interview. Put Me In! is an amazing opportunity for anyone with a sports interest. If you want to learn more about the organization, please visit their website at: https://putmein.org/