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TFK Blog: Beyond the Ticket

Building Benefits With Block Play

Without being prompted, kids often gravitate toward toys and activities that encourage them to build. Whether it’s stacking other toys, books, and objects, playing with simple wooden blocks, or construction toys like LEGOs, that drive to bring their ideas to life comes from kids’ natural desire to learn through a hands-on activity.

When children engage in building and construction play, they’re privy to unique developmental benefits that can help them academically and socially. As most parents can attest, specific toy sets aren’t always needed to facilitate this — kids will work with just what they have on hand, making forts out of empty boxes and towers from plastic cups, using their imaginations all the while.

In celebration of National LEGO Day, which takes place this January 28th, let’s examine some of the benefits of construction play.

  • It improves spatial reasoning: Conceptualizing objects in three dimensions, including the ability to envision how objects would look when moved or rotated, is called spatial reasoning. While some people are naturally better at this than others, certain activities can help to improve spatial reasoning, including construction play. [1]
  • It increases cognitive flexibility: Switching back and forth between activities requires patience, focus, and skill, culminating in an ability called cognitive flexibility. Greater cognitive flexibility is attained through experience, and construction play is linked to improvements in the skill. [2]
  • It stimulates creative thought: The use of creativity, imagination, and role-play in childhood activities is developmentally important — it encourages kids to be divergent thinkers and boosts their social aptitude. When engaging in construction play, kids have the opportunity to focus on their own ideas, stimulating their creativity and encouraging the future implementation of creative problem-solving. [3]
The benefits of LEGO play - Infographic

To learn more about the history of National Lego Day and discover some fun facts about the popular building blocks, click here.   

Arthur Grant,

Inspiring Together Through a Pandemic

Think back to mid-March. When you first heard that we would need to stay home for two weeks, maybe like me, you thought ‘this isn’t so bad – a break from routine’. Then weeks became months, and the months seem to drag on. There have been times in my life when I’ve sought isolation, but I had never experienced isolation resulting from something so far beyond my own control. This was a privilege that in many ways I took for granted.

Isolation is a reality for so many children, whether there’s a pandemic or not. Factors beyond their control limit their access and exposure to so many things we take for granted. That’s why Tickets for Kids began more than 25 years ago… to expose all kids to the cultural experiences that help shape who we become.

As those initial weeks turned into months, at Tickets for Kids we knew our work needed to evolve so that kids are not being driven into further isolation. We turned to the thousands of nonprofit partners and ticket-providers in our network to take inventory of the possibilities. As we connected the dots between our resources at hand and the needs we saw among our partners, our mission was quickly being fulfilled in creative and meaningful ways:

  • Virtual Bollywood dance classes with the South Asian Arts and Theater House
  • Professional athlete Q&A’s with former MN Viking Mike Harris and former professional soccer player, Tony Sanneh
  • Ballet classes with the Pittsburgh Ballet
  • Guided kayaking tours with Wahoo! Adventures
  • Free paddleboard, canoe, and bike rentals with WheelFun Rentals
  • Camping and fishing with the Three Rivers Park District
  • Board games being donated and distributed to our agency partners from MindWare

In other cases, we thought outside the box to address needs created by the pandemic. When our partners at the Minnesota Opera began producing thousands of facemasks from fabric in their costume shop, we had a ready-made network of social service agencies to distribute them, allowing our nonprofit partners to continue to serve their kids – some of the most vulnerable kids in our communities.

In short – when the tickets stopped, we didn’t. The reason we were able to keep pressing forward is because of monetary donors like you. Donors who not only believe that exposure to new experiences matters, but that the village can continue to serve even when the doors close. Our work together is far from complete, and is even more challenging than ever during this pandemic – but together we continue to inspire, encourage, and care. 

Jason J. Riley
Executive Director

A Survey of our Agency Partners

During this time of social distancing, the fabulous TFK staff have been staying in regular contact with our nationwide network of agency partners.  To delve into their front-line experiences in response to the pandemic, we conducted a quick online survey of our partners.  A total of 189 agency partners completed the survey.  This is what they told us:   

For those providing more services, respondents noted the following types of services: 

  • Services for kids facing homelessness 
  • Mental health services 
  • Emergency services (especially providing meals) 
  • Schools/educational services 

A few agencies mentioned their workarounds for delivering services. For example, an agency that gives out meals has switched to leaving them on the recipient’s porch. 

Another agency mentioned confidentiality issues getting in the way of using Zoom or other similar tools. 

In order to develop relevant digital programming for our agency partners, we also asked specific questions about the types of offerings that TFK might produce.  Partners indicated that the following kinds of events might be of interest:  

  • Reading stories aloud 
  • Virtual tours (of theme parks, museums, etc.) 
  • Access codes for movies, TV shows, etc. 
  • Virtual concerts 
  • Activities that involve or are relevant to pop culture 

Typically, the busiest time of the year for us is the summer day camp season, during which we send thousands of kids on educational and fun field trips.  Agency partners are beginning to make their plans for offering summer camps, which will probably offer limited, if any, physical field trips.  Utilizing the feedback from our survey, TFK is currently exploring the possibility of offering a series of digital Field Trip Fridays for this year’s summer camp season.  If you wish to get more information about TFK’s 2020 Summer Season, either as an agency partner or ticket provider, please email  

Access. Inspiration. Paula Kelly.

A recent headline in The New York Times read: Paula Kelly, Who Danced from Stage Onto the Screen, Dies at 77.

L-R Paula Kelly, Shirley MacLaine, and Chita Rivera In Sweet Charity. Photo courtesy of

I didn’t have to read the whole obituary (though of course I did) to know who Paula Kelly was. I knew she was the gorgeous African American woman who danced the hell out of Bob Fosse’s notoriously difficult choreography in the movie version of the musical Sweet Charity. I knew she had been cast in the movie because she had danced the role first on stage in London. I knew all this because I love Broadway musicals, (more on that later). But what I didn’t know was what I read in the next paragraph:

“When she saw her first Broadway show, West Side Story, Ms. Kelly was inspired to pursue a career in dance. She auditioned successfully for admission to the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan and won a scholarship to the dance program at Juilliard in 1960.”

I let that sink in for a minute.

Seeing one show impacted the trajectory of her whole life. She was inspired to take action to pursue a dream of herself as a professional dancer after seeing others doing it. Of course I have no way of knowing how Paula Kelly came to be in that theater on that day; if she was taken there by her parents or as part of a school group of if she bought the ticket herself. But if seeing that performance on that day was a catalyst that led to her amazing future, I sure am glad she was in that seat.

As Director of Development at Tickets for Kids, I spend a lot of time articulating to funders, donors, media, the general public, (and anyone else within earshot) the importance of getting the kids served by our program to the art, cultural, sports, and educational experiences available in their communities. I explain that our generous supporters enable us to remove the cost barrier to these opportunities, so under-resourced kids can have access to potentially transformative experiences.

Like everyone at Tickets for Kids, I have an “experiential origin story” – a moment I can point to in my childhood that was indelibly stamped on my imagination and shaped the rest of my life. For me, it was seeing the musical My Fair Lady when I was 6 years old. (Hence, the aforementioned love of Broadway musicals.) These early watershed moments keep all of us at Tickets for Kids dedicated to the belief that all kids should have access to these experiences – they shape who we become!

Will every experience we provide be transformative? Of course not, but they each have the potential to be! Will every kid become a performer or a scientist or an athlete? Not likely. But whether kids are transformed or simply transported, every experience has impact.

And I can’t help but wonder – which ticket might be placed in the hand of the next Paula Kelly?

by Meryl Hellring, Development and Communications Director

Do Business, Do Good: How Business-nonprofit Partnerships Can Make A Bigger Impact

Does this look familiar?

“Give to us to save the planet”
“Give to us to feed the poor”
“Give to us to educate the children”

Most of us see dozens of messages like this each day – all for wonderful and worthy causes! You may have even received one from Tickets for Kids to “Inspire their Future.” For those of us who want to make an impact in the world, we give to as many causes as we are able and hope our contribution makes an impact.

One generation that’s changing the philanthropy scene and looking for new ways to give are millennials. By 2020, there will be more millennials in the workforce than any other generation. With an increase in income, they are looking for quick and easy ways to make an impact on their community. Life moves fast for this generation, and giving needs to be convenient and built into their other priorities.

Luckily, many businesses have made this type of philanthropy possible. Look at Amazon and their “Amazon Smile” program. Simply by making your regular Amazon orders through an identical website, you can give back to the charities you’re passionate about. Other companies like TOMS, Patagonia, Target, and more have built giving into everyday life, so it’s possible to make an impact more than just a few times each year.
These “built-in giving” options are wonderful for nonprofits. They save a significant amount of staff resources and marketing dollars that can then go back to those we serve.

One of our favorite partners, PRMG (Paramount Residential Mortgage Group, Inc.) understands the support nonprofits need and has created a program to help the new type of philanthropist build giving into one of their most important life events – buying a home!
“There aren’t many things that can be more impactful to a family than buying a home,” says PRMG business partner, Forest Green. “A home provides a stable environment for children to grow and families to thrive. It is also expensive, which can take away from people having disposable income to give to charity.”

As business owners and community builders, Green and his partner Clinton Rooney wanted to create a program that allows homebuyers an avenue to give back. Therefore, they launched Purchase with a Purpose.

Purchase with a Purpose lowers the closing costs of purchasing a home (often a cost homebuyers underestimate) and provides a cash donation to Tickets for Kids given in the name of the homebuyer. There are no extra steps to take and giving couldn’t be more convenient. Tickets for Kids can provide more experiences, the homebuyer feels good about making an impact, and PRMG continues their tradition of community building.

As new generations have different expectations for giving, business/nonprofit partnerships like this one may be one of the most powerful means to do good, creating a better world for us all.

by Susan Murray, Twin Cities Regional Director

New Position, New Program, New Opportunities

I strongly believe that all children, regardless of where they might reside on the “ability” scale, deserve the opportunity to experience the connection, inclusion, enjoyment, and inspiration that happens inside our region’s great cultural venues.  

Before joining Tickets for Kids in September, I worked for many years providing program support, services, and resources to youth with disabilities and their families. Some of the most memorable “breakthroughs” I witnessed during that time came when a shared experience helped to create a genuine connection between the child and the caring adult who wanted to see them move beyond their challenges and disabilities. 

I can recall one example that happened after taking a group of girls to a baseball game – with tickets provided by Tickets for Kids, I might add! Something about watching the game caused one of the girls to comment, “That was great! All kids should have a chance to do things like that, no matter what!”  I couldn’t agree more!  

That’s why I am so excited to oversee and introduce the TFK ConnectAbility Program, which seeks to create and expand partnerships with ticket providers and social service agencies who serve children, youth, and young adults up to the age of 25 with developmental disabilities.  Our goal is to provide young people facing varying degrees of challenges with equitable access to inclusive, enriching activities and events.  By doing so, we hope that these young people will be inspired to have breakthroughs of their own! 

How it Works: 

To participate in the TFK ConnectAbility Program, agencies must be an active TFK agency partner located in western Pennsylvania. This means they have met all general requirements and completed the agency application process.  In addition, participating agency partners must service youth defined as having a developmental disability, such as, but not limited to, autism.  Transportation assistance is available for qualifying agencies.  

Moving Forward: Action Steps & Updates 

To ensure that the mission is moving forward, TFK has taken action steps and made some updates!   Sensory Friendly events and performances are now more easily accessible on the TFK portal!  Event descriptions are being updated with available accommodations. This will allow agencies to be supported in knowing what resources and accessibility accommodations are available at partnering venues.  By providing this connection to resources, we hope that agencies will be confident that the events they request, will have what is needed to allow their youth to fully be included in cultural experience, no matter what!     

If your agency serves youth with disabilities, you are a venue, or even a season pass holder willing to provide opportunities and experiences to youth with disabilities, don’t wait! Connect here!

by Comocrea Johnson, Program Coordinator

2nd Annual Ticket to the Twin Cities Celebrates Kids, Family, and Community!

Nearly 2,000 local children produced more than 10,000 happy smiles at the 2nd Annual Ticket to the Twin Cities presented by PNC and Tickets for Kids Charities on Sunday, June 30th at CHS Field in St. Paul, Minnesota. The family-friendly activities responsible for all that happiness included:

  • Engineering projects with Play-Well, Snapology, The Bakken Museum, and the Science Museum of Minnesota
  • Animal education with the Minnesota Zoo’s llamas and SEA LIFE Aquarium’s tortoises
  • History and magic with the Minnesota Renaissance Festival
  • Athletics and healthy living with the MN Twins, MN United FC, St. Paul Saints, and Pressed Juice and Yoga
  • Arts and theater with Children’s Performing Arts, Lyrics Art, and the Ordway
  • And simple, old-fashioned play with The Teddy Bear Band, Big Thrill Factory, Gameworks, Urban Air, and more!

The St. Paul Saint’s “Mudonna” stole the show with her dance moves, but Curious George, Marshall from Paw Patrol, and PK from the MN United got their share of hugs as well.  Energized kids sang loud and proud with kid’s karaoke from Hearts Performing Arts, bowled a strike with Gameworks, and made a virtual fruit salad with REM5’s Fruit Ninja simulator!

As her 5-year-old was building a stomp rocket at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s station, a local mother told a Tickets for Kids staff member:

“Wow, I have never seen so many great kids’ activities in one place – and all for free!  Thank you for allowing my family to be a part of this day.  We could have never afforded to visit all of these organizations in one summer, but you brought them all to us!”

This is exactly the mission of Tickets for Kids Charities: To provide at-risk children with experiences that inspire hope, dreams, and achievements for a lifetime!  This event was open to the whole community, but celebrated Tickets for Kids’ ability to provide more than 30,000 experiences a year to children who otherwise could not access them.  With the generous support of our sponsors, partners, and community, this event raised funds to send more than 2,700 kids to ballgames, museums, theaters, and more this year.

A special thank you to our sponsors:

PNC Bank

Minnesota Twins

Urban Air Adventure Park

Science Museum of Minnesota



Children’s Performing Arts

See you next year!

Former TFK Intern Turns Into Full-Time Staffer

I began with Tickets for Kids as a summer intern in 2018, but one summer wasn’t enough! I’m happy to be back and rejoining the TFK staff as a full-time program associate.

I first encountered Tickets for Kids at a University of Pittsburgh job fair. I was a junior majoring in Economics at the time and not sure what kind of career I was called to. So, I set out with two criteria: I wanted a company that was passionate about helping people, and one that could help me grow my skills. When I met the TFK staff, I was drawn to their mission and the culture they had built around it. I quickly decided that TFK was where I wanted to be.

Even though I was excited about the opportunity, I had no idea what to expect. I had never set foot in the office of a nonprofit, much less worked in one. All of my work experience had been in athletics: refereeing, lifeguarding, and coaching soccer, basketball, and swimming. Much like TFK’s mission, I had been helping kids grow through activities, but I’d been doing so with a much different skill set.

Despite this uncertainty, I quickly came to love working at Tickets for Kids. In taking on a variety of assignments, I found myself using old skills in new ways. For example, in studying economics at Pitt, I had written essays in most of my classes and felt comfortable as a writer. During my internship, I worked on two reports. These had a lot in common with the essays I had written for school. I combined critical thinking and statistical metrics in order to analyze process efficiency. However, I wasn’t writing for a professor. I had to streamline my writing and write more concretely than before. My internship forced me to make these kinds of little adjustments every day and built my skills in new ways.

So, when I was about to graduate and was offered the opportunity to come back to TFK, I jumped at the chance. My new role will have a lot in common with my internship. I’ll be supporting both the ticket distribution and development, so I’ll be wearing a lot of hats, just like before. I’m most excited to continue helping kids have access to the amazing experiences that TFK provides. It’s great to see how much good a small organization can do, and I’m blessed to be a part of it.

by Patrick McDunn, Program Associate

PULSE Fellow Puts Heart into TFK Service Year


Serving at Tickets for Kids Charities as a Program Associate and PULSE Fellow over the past four months has been an enriching and rewarding experience. When my peers and professors at Carnegie Mellon asked me about my post-graduate plans, I was never able to give an exact answer. My parents always encouraged me to study what I was passionate about, so I pursued a B.A. in Global Studies and French. I found amazing success and gratification through studying what I felt passionate about, so when I was presented with the opportunity to work in France as an English Language Assistant for seven months, I decided to give teaching a try. And while living and working in France was extremely formative and memorable, I did not find teaching to be as rewarding as I anticipated.

When my teaching contract ended in April, I looked for job opportunities that would create meaningful and positive change. I was confident that searching for said-opportunity would fulfill my wish to pursue work that I felt passionate about, which led me to PULSE: Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience. PULSE’s mission is to cultivate a community of young servant leaders to transform Pittsburgh through a year of service. In addition to living in an intentional community (sharing a house with six other fellows) and training in personal and professional development, PULSE fellows serve 35 hours a week at nonprofits across Pittsburgh. It is through PULSE that I was given the opportunity to partner with Tickets for Kids Charities.

I was instantly drawn to Tickets for Kids because of its mission to provide kids with access to events that they normally would not have the opportunity to experience. Growing up in Pittsburgh, my fondest childhood memories are from attending Pirate’s games, going to museums, and most notably seeing the Nutcracker Ballet every Christmas with my mom. Knowing that I am helping to provide kids in Pittsburgh and across the U.S. with similar opportunities gives true meaning to the work that I’m doing.

One of the favorite parts of my job has been receiving direct feedback from events. Just the other day I received a heartwarming hand-written thank you note from a kid who attended a football game. Receiving this kind of feedback is extremely rewarding, because I am truly able to see how remarkable and impactful TFK’s mission is.

I understand why the work ethic at Tickets for Kids is so contagious – every staff member is motivated and passionate about TFK’s mission -- and I look forward to continuing to work alongside my colleagues for the next year to continue to provide TFK Kids with amazing and memorable opportunities and experiences.

-Casey Devine

Big Cat Habitat

TFK Kids Experience The Majestic Animals Of The Jungle

Thanks to a generous donation from new partner organization Big Cat Habitat & Gulf Coast Sanctuary, TFK Kids from Coastal Behavioral Healthcare, Inc. had the opportunity to learn about the exotic cats and other distinctive species that populate this large-animal rescue facility in Sarasota, Florida.

Chaperone Jeremiah Radle commented, “This was a one-of-a-kind experience for our kids to engage in and learn about our animal friends.

“Given the opportunity to interact with exotic animals from around the globe, the kids’ fears quickly changed to curiosity.

“We learned that Big Cat Habitat houses the largest population of big cat species around and rescues a variety of animals,” Radle continued. “We were educated on the dangers of owning wild animals as pets and the difference between animal rights and animal welfare. 

“The boys gained a new respect for the animals. Overall, we had an amazing and enlightening experience and are very appreciative to Big Cat Habitat for inviting us to come.”

Thank you, Big Cat Habitat & Gulf Coast Sanctuary, for not only educating these TFK Kids, but also for providing an opportunity to explore this unique environment.