Youth who live in troubled urban neighbourhoods know that playing—especially winning—on someone else’s court can be a risky game. Tough local groups will claim courts as their own. Here at Covenant House, they discover more than just a safe place to shoot hoops.
Basketball means a lot to the kids who meet up weekly to play in the gym at Covenant House. They may have played all their lives and developed their skills, but they have had little encouragement or formal training. Our staff Oneil and Karen supervise the evening and shoot hoops with the kids. They are serious ball players themselves and provide coaching to the kids. They connect with our youth through their shared love of basketball, but that grows into mentorship off the courts as well.
The youth, who are often former residents or have connected with our other programs in the recent past, rely on the weekly games to seek advice on school, relationships or even parenting. Oneil and Karen also counsel them on life skills and the resources available to them in the community. They provide a caring and stable presence for these youth who have few positive adult mentors.
New dad Jerome shares how important it is to him that he can provide for his child. He was recently excited about a job interview and wanted advice. Karen connected him with our young father’s group.
Curtis, who stayed with us recently, now studies at York University and works part time. Despite his full schedule, he never misses making the trip downtown from the north end of the city for game night. He looks forward to getting advice on roommates and university life.
For Youth Worker Oneil, basketball night is a labour of love. He organizes the night for the youth and makes sure to connect with everybody. Originally from a rough neighbourhood himself, he found that basketball expanded his horizons. It allowed him to bond with coaches and to travel outside his neighbourhood.
“A lot of the youth don’t have positive male role models in their lives,” Oneil explains. “I like being a mentor to them.” He doesn’t mind getting a bit fired up during a match. He demonstrates to the kids how to be passionate, engaged and sportsmanlike during a game as he joins them on the court. But, his favourite time is checking in with the youth on the benches. He makes sure they are doing alright and that they know the options available to them.
“Everything I learned in life, I learned from basketball,” says Karen, manager of our drop-in and outreach programs. “Respect, communication, team dynamics—it’s all there in the game. That’s why I love mentoring youth on the courts.” Having attended George Brown on a basketball scholarship, she is delighted to marry her love of the sport with her work with our youth.
Karen has a calm and nurturing presence, but commands total authority on basketball night. The youth understand it is “her court”, so there are no territorial disputes. No threats or taunts are tolerated, but they are opportunities for teaching. The last time two players got heated over a game, she spent time talking to them about the struggles they face in their lives. “You’ve overcome so much in your lives,” Karen explained. “A game is never worth losing your cool over.”
The kids also learn a thing or two from Karen about perseverance, discipline and leaving their judgment at the door. After all, she is a woman several years older and a few feet shorter than them, but she plays a great game. She insists with a laugh that the boys show her “no mercy”, but she often dominates the courts, thanks to her experience and a keen understanding of basketball fundamentals.
Every three months, we have a round robin tournament. There are trophies, goodies and a cake shaped like a basketball. And, maybe a little pride and glory.