Partner Profile: Michael, Next Level Custom Mascots

You may have noticed a new face among the smiles in many of our photos; with big blue eyes and bright green cheeks, we welcome Ace, our new mascot, who arrives just in time for the summer swing! Ace has already made quite an impression with our kids, stepping onto the courts at Roosevelt and Lincoln Elementary Schools in Dolton to say hello and show off some of his signature spins. He is a tennis ball, after all! The ACE Project had an opportunity to speak with Michael Airhart, owner of Next Level Custom Mascots and creator of Ace, about his involvement in Riverdale/Dolton, his interest in our mission, and his design for mascot. 

The ACE Project: Tell us about your background.

Michael: I grew up on the Southside of Chicago in the Altgeld Gardens housing projects with a dream. Poor but my mom did what she had to do to keep food, clothes, etc. in the house. There was no father figure in the house; my mom was hard working. She started out at the post office then went to school to become a nurse. Growing up as a kid in the projects, I remember staying busy whether it was strike out tumbling or staying in the woods behind our middle school; l managed to forget where I lived and make the best of it.

My history with the Riverdale Park District goes way back. I first met Byron and Betty Robinson when they were running for office. They knocked on my door and explained who they were, giving me a chance to share that I have been trying to give back to Riverdale for a few years. Sure enough, after they won office, I received a call from Kendall Parrott, Executive Director of the Riverdale Park District, and the rest was history. We work as a team; I help bring lots of exciting things to Riverdale, and I also donate my services to the senior social at the end of every month. Its not about me or Riverdale Park District, though; its about the community and making it great again. The Riverdale Park District has turned things around in the last three years; its been amazing to say I'm a part of this history.

The ACE Project: Where did your interest in creating and designing mascots come from?

Michael: I remember they had a sewing class for older women in the children's building. I don't know why, but I wanted to go and learn, so while everyone was out playing ball or tumbling, I was sneaking to the children's building to learn how to sew with the elders. That's the day my life changed. I began to make sock puppets, sewing clothes together to make them, then I put on shows, charging 10 cents a show; I was definitely making money. I think that's where my characters and mascot career came to life.

The ACE Project: How did you begin working with The ACE Project?

Michael: I got involved with The ACE Project through Mrs. Dot Jeter, the retired principal at Washington Middle School. She is an AWESOME family friend; she was also my kids' principal. She gave me my first opportunity to make a mascot in District 148: the Washington Bull Dog Mascot. Mrs. Jeter told me about this program that she wanted me to get involved with, so I came up to see what was happening. When I first arrived, I couldn't believe what I was seeing! The kids were having a blast playing tennis along with the staff; I stayed connected and never left :) The ACE Project is awesome for schools and communities with the teaching, mentorship, and love; its the best feeling for a kid to have.

The ACE Project: How did Ace, the mascot, come to be and where do you see yourself headed with The ACE Project?

Michael: Ace is a loving character, a hugging character, and a motivator who will bring smiles to kids' faces. He's a tennis ball with style. I want to continue my journey with The ACE Project as long as possible, because I want to stay connected, bringing smiles to the kids' faces. Whether its DJ-ing for events or assisting with programs, I'm there. Making Ace was a dream come true, something I've been thinking about since last year. I wanted something that would stand out amongst other mascots; his face features gives you the sense of pure love for kids ... he's a loveable, huggable mascot that you would never want to let go. The Ace dolls coming soon! lol This is a very proud moment in my life; thank you all for believing in me.

Susan Klumpner