PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A youth football and cheerleading organization is left scrambling to find new gear after a fire destroyed the majority of theirs just two weeks before the start of the season.
According to Providence police, the fire was started by unknown means last Thursday near a large blue storage locker located behind Mount Pleasant High School.
Inside the locker was football equipment belonging to the Providence 49ers, a youth football and cheerleading organization that keeps 250 to 300 kids off the streets each year and teaches them a whole lot more than just football.
“Football is the game of life,” said Luis Aponte, president of the Providence 49ers. “You get knocked down, you have to learn to get back up, brush yourself off and keep going forward OK, and our kids learn that.”
Still, Aponte said it was heartbreaking to learn that more than 75 percent of their equipment was damaged in a fire that appeared to be intentionally set.
“I hope not. I really, deep down, really hope somebody wouldn’t do this intentionally,” Aponte said. “This is years and years of accumulating things, of grants, of money, of fundraising, of canning, this is years. And it just went up within three hours. That’s sad.”
According to the police report, a Mount Pleasant football coach said he saw two juvenile males running from the fire and that one of them was wearing a maroon shirt and blue shorts. Aponte showed Eyewitness News the piles of burnt wood and tires he said firefighters pulled from the scene.
“It was heartbreaking to see, it was so close to home,” said Jose Lugo, the 49ers’ vice president, coach and former player. “To see years of equipment that people donated and worked hard to get to try to provide to these kids just burnt down.”
With just days to go before practice begins, the coaches said there’s no option of not having a team.
“We’ll have them switching uniforms or whatever but we’re going to keep them out there, keep them off the streets and keep them on the field,” said equipment manager Byron Almeida.
“The saddest thing to do is to wake up and listen to news about a kid getting shot, a kid getting stabbed, another one getting arrested,” Aponte added.
Aponte said the organization is more like a family than a team. Lugo agreed.
“You get to go spend the night at coach’s house, you get away out of the environment that you’re growing up in,” Lugo said.
Lugo said they’ll use this tragedy to teach another life lesson and that regardless, the season will go on.
“We’ll be alright, the season ain’t over,” Lugo said. “There’s still gonna be the Providence 49ers and we’ll be alright. We ain’t going nowhere.”
While police said the value of the damaged equipment was not known at this time, Aponte said about $15,000 worth of equipment was destroyed in the fire and that the Providence 49ers are a nonprofit organization. The organization has started a GoFundMe page in hopes that people will donate to help the 49ers replace the damaged equipment.
“We teach our kids that the difference between winning and losing is how much heart, how much heart you put into it, so you could have all the talent in the world but unless you have heart behind that talent, what good is talent?” Aponte asked. “Now, I look at this and I reach out to the community: let’s dig deep, let’s show them that you support the 49ers, that you support your community. Show them you have heart.”
Police said the incident remains under investigation and the cause of the fire is unknown at this time.