A lot of you probably know that I am living in Ireland for the next 9 or so months and that I am playing basketball. But the program that I am a part of is so much more than that. This non-profit organization is called Sport Changes Life because sport truly can change your life. It has definitely changed mine!
I have been given the opportunity to continue my education at the post-graduate level and also to continue to play and coach basketball on the beautiful island of Ireland. Myself and 21 other student-athletes have been chosen to represent Sport Changes Life as Victory Scholars. Our main goal is to help raise the aspirations of the young people on both sides of the Atlantic.
We are working in communities to help young people find a path to a brighter future. During my first week in Belfast, we went to Limavady High School. We were greeted by the principal and some staff who briefed us on their students. He explained that there is a high deprivation rate in this area. A large percentage of the students cannot afford to buy lunch so the school provides them with free meals, there is a large number of suicidal students, and some of the kids were sent to school on the first day with no uniform. Later that day we stopped at a Youth Centre in Portrush. After our session we were informed that 3 of the children we were working with had autism and usually struggle to participate in group activities. Well, that day I could not have picked out those three children. These are the kind of children that we will be constantly working with.
We also got the chance to work with an Over 50’s group where we spent the day playing pickle-ball, badminton, and bowls, this is part of the Sport Changes Life Active Ageing program. Another day, we spent an afternoon at a nursing home where most of the residents suffer from dementia. While it was hard to see how badly the dementia effects some of the residents, it was an amazing experience to be able to go in there and put a smile on some of their faces. A lot of the older folks we met reminded me of my Pap, who recently passed away this summer. I know that he would have loved to see young people like us stop in and visit him once a week. For some of those people, that could have been the only conversation that they have had in days. For the more active ones, we played a bit of boccia. The rest of our afternoon was spent getting to know them, singing and dancing.
Another Sport Changes Life Program is called eHoops. This program is meant for us to be role models in young people’s lives and to help them find inspiration in their world. We use a mixture of sport and education to give the young people a brighter future and enable them to become an active citizen in society. As Victory Scholars, we mentor the kids through difficult times in their lives and talk about social issues of concern. The goal is to help them with their education, job search, health and mental well-being. We had the opportunity to engage with a girls’ soccer team last week.Most of the girls were preparing for their GCSE test (really similar to our SAT’s or ACT’s in America). Some of the girls I spoke with were really anxious and stressed about the test. Spending a few hours with them talking and playing a few games was a great way to help them relax.
I have only been in Ireland for 15 days and have already been able to touch the lives of all of these people, young and old. It was very gratifying to see what a difference a few hours with some of these people can make. And while I know that we helped inspire a lot of them, what was truly rewarding for me was seeing how much they inspired us as well. It goes both ways!
So, yes, I am still playing basketball and studying, but the real reason that I am here is to have a unique experience within the local communities that we are working in while raising aspirations of people through sports mentoring. Life is bigger than basketball and this program truly exemplifies that!