Connor Barwin fell in love with Philadelphia back in 2013. After four seasons in Houston, he signed a long-term deal with the Eagles — six years, $36 million — and decided the City of Brotherly Love is where he would start building his legacy. One of the first things on his agenda was to take a leadership role in the community, something he had observed in his previous locker room but never embraced.
“I got into the NFL and played four years in Houston and my focus was just making the team,” Barwin told Heavy.com. “I was still kind of young my first few years in Houston. I saw some guys doing things outside of football successfully and I saw some guys doing things unsuccessfully, so I just kind of observed and helped where I could. When I came here to Philly, I signed a longer deal and I decided that I really wanted to take the leadership role and do something.”
Barwin, who tweeted an ode to Boyz II Men upon signing with the Eagles, started a charity foundation called Make The World Better in 2014 after sensing a real need for change in the community. The inspiration, according to Barwin, began with a fateful bike ride past an old park on his way home from practice in South Philadelphia. He wanted to improve the dilapidated basketball courts he saw at Ralph Brooks Park but didn’t know how. One thing he learned fast was opening up his checkbook wasn’t the answer. He needed higher-up connections.
“I thought I could raise $50,000 or pay $50,000 to repave the basketball court and put new hoops up, but I quickly realized that wasn’t the best way to do it,” Barwin said. “You had to get involved with the neighborhood, or else it’s an investment gone to waste.”
He reached out to the Eagles’ front office and they helped him get in touch with city officials, community leaders and other non-profit organizations in the area. He worked hand-in-hand with the mayor’s office and enlisted Philly musician Kurt Vile to partner with him on a massive charity concert. That first show raised $180,000 and the first project cost $750,000. Along the way, he has also garnered support from celebrity chef Marc Vetri, pizza impresario Joe Beddia and Yards Brewing Company.
On Tuesday, Barwin announced the lineup for the fifth-annual MTWB Benefit Concert which will take place on September 5 at the Dell Music Center in East Fairmount, a city-owned venue that holds 6,000 people. The show (click here for tickets) will feature live performances from Baltimore’s Future Islands, plus three local bands — Strand of Oaks, Karl Blau and surprise guest Hop Along, a Philly band performing in their hometown for the first time in a year and a half. They raised $150,000 last year and hope to up that total to $200,000 this year.
“My parents always had me involved in the community, always involved in the neighborhood,” Barwin said. “I lived at the playground as a kid. I woke up and ran with my basketball to the playground and would be there all day playing basketball and then when the lights came on it was time to come home.”
Barwin credits a lot of people for helping him along the way, none greater than his partner Jeff Tubbs and executive director Claire Laver. He also got an assist early on from former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell’s son who advised him that he needed to hire a manager if he wanted to take his fundraising to the “next level.” That job went to Laver and she has been indispensable to the foundation.
“Through my benefit and contributions, we’ve raised over $300,000 and then we’ve been able to take that and leverage it to over $6 million in parks projects,” Barwin said. “You got to have some skin in the game, so my ability to match the money raised and then go out and take that chunk and go after the city and other big foundations is how you do it.”
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The foundation has multiple projects in the works, including a $14 million grant to renovate Vare Recreation Center in Grays Ferry, as well as completing Phase 2 of their revitalization project at Waterloo Playground in West Kensington. MTWB has also successfully improved both Smith Playground and Ralph Brooks Park in South Philadelphia. The latter was the same place he passed on that initial bike ride in 2013, the one that nurtured his thirst for community service.
In 2015, Barwin received some “fan mail” from President Bill Clinton congratulating him on his philanthropic endeavors. Barwin still gets emotional talking about his first two projects. He fondly remembers jumping around on the basketball courts at Ralph Brooks Park and standing in front of the residents living around Smith Playground.
“Anytime I go to Ralph Brooks Park, that is the place that inspired me,” Barwin said. “They have a summer league there, and you go down there any weekend in the summer, and it’s packed. The neighborhood has done a tremendous job there.”
“I’ll never forget, we had our ribbon cutting [at Smith Playground] and the parks commissioner said to me on the side, Kathryn Ott Lovell, she said to me, ‘You know this would have cost us twice as much and took us twice as long [without your support]’ and that really made me feel good.”
Charity usually starts at home, but Barwin grew up in Hazel Park, Michigan. So why the intense love affair with Philadelphia? He said it’s all about the people, from loyal Eagles fans to former and current teammates to politicians and community leaders. Barwin doesn’t want to live or play anywhere else.
“For me, it’s a working person’s city and I like to work,” Barwin said. “I think it’s a great city, it’s a special city. I think it’s the best sports city in the country.”