On an unseasonably warm Thursday afternoon in February, a group of nervously excited third, fourth, and fifth grade students at Positive Tomorrows loaded the school bus. They wore matching blue jerseys, with “STARS” written across the back as they chanted team mantras from their seats. They were members of the Positive Tomorrows Stars basketball team, and they were on their way to their first basketball game. Not only was this the first game of the season, it was the first game in Positive Tomorrows history.
A school basketball team has been a dream for the students at Positive Tomorrows, but the challenges of a constantly-changing roster due to the mobility of families experiencing homelessness made that difficult. That all changed thanks to a partnership with the Police Athletic League. The newly-minted Positive Tomorrows Stars get to play as a coed, multi-grade scrimmage team, and the students are loving every second.
For most children, every season brings a new team sport opportunity: t-ball in the summer, football and soccer in the fall, track in the spring. But for children experiencing homelessness, getting to practice can be hard, and extra money for shoes, jerseys, and sports equipment is non-existent.
At Positive Tomorrows, Jerseys are provided free of charge. Donors pitch in to provide new shorts and basketball shoes to every child, and games are during the school’s after-school program so transportation is always provided.
The basketball team is an unlikely mix of boys and girls, tall and short, and varying ages, but they all have something in common: it’s their first time to play on a team together, and win or lose they are thrilled to be there. This attitude is in part, due to the Get Out and Lead (GOAL) program that Stars’ coaches Kelly Berger and Nick Richert have put into place each week at practice.
“I want everyone to feel welcome at basketball, and it’s not just about the sport. It’s about the teachable lessons along the way,” said Coach Kelly Berger, who is also the school’s Director of Family Support. “Our basketball players are leaders in our school. With them, what gets the most respect on the playground is kindness, integrity, and compassion, not who is the toughest. It starts on the basketball court, but it changes our entire school culture.”
When students decide they want to join the basketball team, they sign a GOAL commitment card. Their teachers and parents also sign this card. Students make a commitment to learning and developing character qualities during the season, both on and off the court. Teachers and parents also commit to helping students meet these goals. Some of the qualities include attentiveness, compassion, dependability, gratefulness, and humility. If a student isn’t showing these qualities in the classroom, they may have to sit a game out.
Every week a team member receives an award for one of the GOAL character qualities. They may receive it for something they did during practice, or it may be for something they did during school or at home.
“We have students who’ve never played on a team,” said Berger. “And there is a strong sense of team, because our kids know what it’s like to be left out, to be on the bench. During games, they want to make sure every team member gets time on the court. It’s created a high level of empathy.”
At that first basketball game, the Stars didn’t score any baskets, and they didn’t win the game. However, it was hard to tell that was the case. They couldn’t stop smiling, they posed for photos, proud parents gave hugs, and on the ride back to the school they were singing and chanting. They were already talking about their plans for the next game and what they were going to do to prepare for it at practice.
“The reason you see chanting when they didn’t score a point was because they were proud to be part of a bigger purpose. It gave them a sense of pride,” said Berger. “When you are constantly moving, never in one place long enough to join a team, you don’t get a sense of a hometown, or a sense of school pride, but here they have a sense belonging.”
In March, the Positive Tomorrows Stars won their first game. As students have moved, we’ve lost members of the team, but we’ve also gained new ones who’ve been able to join and immediately feel welcomed.
“We know how important mentors and role models are to help build positive character traits in children. Something they love and care about will help them to stay in school, to graduate high school,” said Berger. “The time we spend in small groups for basketball practice, we are talking about how to be a better person, and I believe this will change the course of their lives.”
Are you interested in learning how you can change a child’s life at Positive Tomorrows? Learn more about volunteering today!