Bouncing a Ball on the Blacktop

By Jake Mendys – Shooting Touch Blog #4

ST BLOG #4

In my previous post, I mentioned how a lot of mine and Chloe’s readers here can’t truly realize the impact that they’re having over here in Rwanda. For those who attended the 2016 Gala in Dorchester, one of the most powerful moments (I thought) was hearing the incredible passion that Nobles School Athletic Director Alex Gallagher spoke with about his visit to Eastern Rwanda last year for Matt and Jazz’s International Women’s Day Tournament. But more on that/Alex later.

Firstly, Chloe and I spent some time putting together some videos illustrating our daily lives here in Rwinkwavu and Kayonza (respectively). You can find those videos here and here, as well as embedded at the end of this blog. Take a minute, you’re already taking a few minutes off at work or wherever you are right now to read this post, and watch the videos, I promise you’ll be in a good mood for the rest of the day.

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Above: The woman of Rukara celebrating their first trophy

Two weekends ago, Chloe and I put on an incredibly successful 3v3 tournament to end the kids’ summer holiday season, with a special focus on combatting gender-based and domestic violence in the communities Shooting Touch operates in. The most remarkable result was that our women’s program in Rukara, after just 12 weeks of practice (read as 12 weeks ever playing basketball), won the women’s bracket.

A lot of hard work went into making the tournament possible and I learned a lot about how important preparation and flexibility are when it comes to putting on a live event. I had some previous experience managing live events while putting on the Dozen Doughnut Dash when I was still in college and from my work with Nike’s Track and Field Sports Marketing crew in Oregon. I felt like the entire day of the event, I was being pulled in a million different directions and couldn’t even hear myself think. To my man Paul Moser, I’m starting to more fully understand part of the headache you experienced at all of our track meets and hospitality setups, finding a half-decent caterer for a reasonable price is an absolute nightmare man.

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Picture: Kids from Kayonza painting their cheering section banner with a headline about preventing domestic violence

I’ll run you guys through the hard statistics. 300 spectators. More than 100 players across our women’s, girl’s, and boy’s programs, spanning from ages 10-35+. 200 pamphlets detailing the dangers of and solutions to domestic violence. 4 (you read that correctly) players (2 boys, 2 girls) recruited from our program onto the Rwanda U16 National Basketball Team. And those are just the measurable, quantitative outputs of the tournament. Accolades aside, the tournament was satisfying because outside of some planning help from Lisanne, a lot of the execution was on myself and Chloe, and we rose to the occasion (see tangible outputs of the tournament listed above.)

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Picture: Two players, Thierry and Junior, show off their new shoes after our pre-tournament shoe distribution in Kayonza

Some may find this surprising, but a lot of the kids and women we work with have never been further than a few miles from their homes. The chance to travel just 45 minutes down the road is the opportunity of a lifetime. More than the travel, everyone relished the opportunity to show off their skills in front of a captive audience. I can’t speak for Chloe, but I was also harping on the fact that national team coaches would be in attendance, and the kids rose to the occasion and the games were extremely fun to watch. Between bragging rights, chances to impress coaches and local pros, and their desire to compete, I certainly thought “Mission Accomplished” after the event.

In reflecting on the tournament, I’ve come to realize (and appreciate) how privileged I am to come from the place that I do (always a Great Day To Be A Tar Heel) and to have had the numerous opportunities that led me here to Kayonza. For a handful of the kids Chloe and I work with, the chance to play basketball at an elite level or successfully finishing secondary school and attending university is a possibility. I’m starting to see that, for the remaining majority, a tournament like this one, or even the chance to compete for pride in a friendly match like we had in December, can be the highlights of some of our players’ lives.

One of the coaches here who I have become close with, Coach Christian in Kayonza, made the observation that “Shooting Touch’s courts are so important because so many of the kids in Rwanda like basketball at an early age, but cannot play until secondary because there aren’t courts.” That brings me back the passion and the impact I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this blog. Alex Gallagher was nearly in tears up on that stage because of the impact his visit here had, seeing and appreciating first-hand the results of our donors’ financial generosity, of our partners and our friends’ willingness to donate uniforms, sneakers, basketballs, nets, rims, and the like so that some kids might just have the opportunity to bounce a ball on the blacktop.

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Picture: Myself and Overall Tournament MVP Thierry Nkundwa after Kayonza boys won the Secondary bracket.

Christian’s point brings me back to October of last year, when I completed the monthly umuganda (community service) with a handful of my coaches and players in Rukara sector. After community service, a group of men from the village and I played a friendly match with a visiting university on the court Shooting Touch built there. After we won the game (obviously) the elation on the faces of my teammates were incredible. To me, we had just won a glorified pick-up game on a random Saturday afternoon out, miles away from the nearest paved road. For my teammates, they had just won Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

I was floored by their reactions, as well as my relative indifference to their overjoy. I can’t remember who said it before we left the US, but someone in the ST family said, “You’re about to become local celebrities, everyone is watching and everything you do matters.”

That same unadulterated happiness is what I saw on the faces of my players that weekend in January during our tournament. And again, from my perspective, aside from a few players who stood to impress national team coaches, the stakes of the tournament  were fairly low. But they aren’t. These matches and tournaments, they are creating memories to last a lifetime for some of our players. I don’t want to be so overly presumptuous as to say we’ve changed every kids’ life, but we sure are making a lasting impact on more than just a few, just by giving them the opportunity to play basketball and compete with their peers.

One of the greatest presidents in US history (personal opinion) once remarked “Athletic sports, if followed properly, and not elevated into a fetish, are admirable for developing character, besides bestowing on the participants an invaluable fund of health and strength.” (Theodore Roosevelt 1890) His remark is the essence of why Shooting Touch is so important here in Rwanda. For some participants, they simply are able forget about the extenuating circumstances of their challenging rural lives and revel in the joy of having something fun and constructive to do. Others embrace the game and strive to become highly-skilled. It’s incredible to behold, either way. When you say it back to yourself “so that some kids can bounce a ball on the blacktop” could seem like a pretty silly sentence, but the more than 400 youth whose lives Chloe, Lisanne, and I change on a daily and weekly basis, would beg to differ.

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Until next time, stay classy Boston, Chapel Hill, and everywhere else in between. Next time I’ll be talking about the kids going back to school, my first gear distribution, and preparing for the big boss to visit in March.

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