Franklin Rodriguez wasn’t thinking about charitable giving when he signed up for AVL Hoppers. He just wanted to play volleyball.
“I played in some other leagues, and people were like, ‘You should play Hoppers. It’s so much fun,'” the Asheville man says. “How I got involved was just word-of-mouth.”
But Rodriguez soon found out AVL Hoppers wasn’t a typical recreational sports league. A nonprofit, the group defines its mission as using “our passion for volleyball as the catalyst for change in our community.”
Each season, the group’s championship teams receive a prize in the form of a donation to a nonprofit of their choice. In all, AVL Hoppers has contributed more than $2,000 to such area organizations as Brother Wolf Animal Rescue, Helpmate, Blue Ridge Humane Society and Open Hearts Art Center.
“We refer to this as ‘playing it forward,'” explains Brenda Galvan, president and co-founder of AVL Hoppers.
When Rodriguez and teammate Sarah Jordan won the Hoppers’ Upper BB league in August, they were able to put the “play it forward” idea into action. They chose to earmark their $250 prize to Blue Ridge Pride.
“It was cool to be able to donate to them because it’s a cause that’s personal to us. They do so many good things for the Asheville community,” he says. “I just want to help improve the lived experiences of people in the LGBTQ+ community because there are people out there trying to restrict equality and creating barriers to health care access, reducing free-speech expression and obscuring visibility.”
Rodriguez’s experience of finding a place to play competitive volleyball while also giving back is exactly what Galvan and fellow volleyball enthusiasts Kenzie Kramer and Monica Rivas had in mind when they launched AVL Hoppers last summer.
“I think that it’s created a really positive community because you’re playing for something positive at the end of the day and not just additional cash in your pocket like you would get in a lot of other leagues,” Kramer says.
AVL Hoppers runs eight-week seasons, plus playoffs, in the spring, summer and fall. Each doubles team is made up of one man and one woman, and the games are played on outdoor grass courts.
Galvan, Kramer and Rivas got to know each other through Asheville’s burgeoning volleyball scene and soon started kicking around the idea of starting an outdoor coed doubles league. When Galvan played two seasons in a competitive league in Greenville, S.C., she got even more enthusiastic about the idea.
“I was like, ‘Guys, we could do this here. It would work. I think people are really looking for an opportunity to play more competitive volleyball,'” she says.
When she became pregnant and no longer wanted to make the weekly drive to Greenville, the three women launched AVL Hoppers with a series of weekly pickup games. Early results were modest, to say the least.
“It was very small,” Galvan recalls. “We tried it a couple weeks, and at one point I told my husband, ‘This is not going to happen, people are not coming, we should just maybe forget about it.’ “
But the three women persisted, and soon so many people were showing up to the games they couldn’t accommodate them all on the four grass courts they were using at Carrier Park. They worked with Asheville Parks & Recreation to get access to more playing fields at Montford Park and launched leagues in the fall of 2022. It took them several days to sign up about 20 teams in three classifications, Upper A, Lower A and Intermediate.
For their most recent eight-week season, which ends this month, 52 teams in four classifications competed. Teams pay a $70 registration fee.
“Registration filled up in two minutes, which was wild to see considering how hard we were trying to get people to sign up for the first season a year ago,” Kramer says.
Galvan says the quick growth is attributable to several factors. For one, she says, the three sand courts that Highland Brewing Co. opened in 2020 have helped create a passion for outdoor volleyball in Asheville.
“Pre-pandemic, there was a very small group of people that played doubles, and not a lot of people knew how to play it,” she says. “This format is very different than sixes indoors. When I moved here five or six years ago, you pretty much knew everyone that played volleyball if you went to play pickup on Sunday at Monford.”
AVL Hoppers appeals to more skilled players because it’s more competitive than some purely recreational leagues centered around socializing and drinking.
“We from the very beginning specifically wanted it to be competitive,” she explains. “We play by AVP [Association of Volleyball Professionals] rules, and you have to follow them. And so, you have to come in with a mentality of ‘We’re gonna go in and play and play hard.'”
One other key factor in the popularity of AVL Hoppers is the charitable giving aspect, she says. “People do like the idea that if they do win, they get to donate to charity.”
The idea of forming a nonprofit and giving to charity came up early as the founders brainstormed ways to make the organization different, Rivas says.
“We’re three women, we have our jobs, this is not for profit for us. We want to play more volleyball, get better and help other people get better as well. With that being our focus, I think we clung to that nonprofit idea.”
Galvan, Kramer and Rivas liked the idea that players would be able to donate to a cause they cared about even if they didn’t have the financial means to do so. And knowing the prize money is going to a good cause has created an extra incentive to win for the already competitive players.
“People play a little bit harder, especially toward the end as you get into the playoffs,” Rivas says. “People are already thinking about who they’re donating to. We’ve actually had players anonymously tell us that whoever wins, they will match the donation.”
Rodriguez agrees the AVL Hoppers prize model has helped spotlight Asheville’s nonprofit community to league players.
“Investigating where we wanted to donate has opened up my eyes to some new charities and nonprofits that I wasn’t even aware of. And then seeing where other people donate, it’s just really, really awesome. People are excited to see where that money ends up being used.”
Before each season begins, AVL Hoppers asks participants to pick their charity. The organization then confirms the charity is in good standing by using sources like Guidestar.org, Charitynavigator.org or Ashevillechamber.org.
Galvan, Kramer and Rivas encourage participants to support local causes, but they also have approved national organizations like the Parkinson’s Foundation.
Asheville-based Open Hearts Art Center received $475 from AVL Hoppers winners. The nonprofit serves community members with a variety of challenges, including developmental, mental, physical and emotional disabilities.
“Most of the collaborations that we’ve done with other nonprofits have not necessarily had a monetary goal in mind but were more so about making connections,” says Shannon Gallagher, development and communications manager for Open Hearts. “AVL Hoppers, they’re trying to kind of do both, give a monetary donation but also build awareness and build a sense of community. The fact that they are a nonprofit giving money to help other nonprofits is pretty incredible.”
For more information about AVL Hoppers, go to avl.mx/d5f.