Books and Basketball community initiative features Cascades as coaches and tutors

The best ideas are often the simple ones. In the case of middle school vice-principal Jasbir Singh, a great idea was simply to ask his daughter Jaslyen Singh how to help his basketball-crazy students focus on getting their homework done.

Jaslyen had some ideas of her own, and, as a member of the UFV Cascades basketball team, the connections to get them realized. While her father used the ideas produced by his and Jaslyen’s collaboration to apply for a government grant, she pitched a new community program to the UFV Athletics department as well as to her teammates. After all, what better way to convince middle school students of the link between basketball and school than to introduce them to the champion of both, the varsity student-athlete?

Jasbir got the funding, and since then the Books and Basketball program has been a semester long success story at Abbotsford’s Colleen & Gordie Howe Middle School.  Running every Monday and Wednesday between 4:15 and 6:15, the program boasts between 40-50 kids per session. The students are split into two groups and spend an hour playing basketball in the gym as well as an hour doing homework in the library. Helping them on the court and among the books are faces familiar to any Cascades fan: Kevin Ford, Shayna Litman, Alexa McCarthy, and Samantha Kurath among others.

“I wanted to entice kids to excel at school and that’s a tough initiative when they’re younger and, unlike university students, don’t realize the importance of education,” said Jasbir. “They love basketball, they just absolutely adore it, so how do I draw the connection between books and basketball? And I just started thinking, every time they get an interaction with a young student from university they get excited, especially the university athletes.”

Jasbir reported that his students often ask their coaches what kind of marks are required to get into university or to play on a varsity team. The Cascades athletes are helping kids discover that their dreams of basketball excellence also require academic excellence — and that their community heroes at UFV are achieving both.

The program has grown like wildfire,  according to Jasbir. “I just love [the coaches’] enthusiasm,” he said. “I already knew the kids would think of them as role models, but I didn’t know the extent to which they would bind to the athletes. It’s like bees to honey … the kids start to view them as people and then I know that the athletes have connected with the kids and now they’ve got influence. Once the kids know you care about them, then you can move them.”

What do the students think of Books and Basketball?  Most spoke primarily of their improvements on the court, and gave glowing reviews to Cascade Kevin Ford (who does the majority of the coaching in the gym). One said that Ford had “taught [me] a bunch of skills, a lot of new moves, and some respect. [My best new move] is the in-and-out crossover!”

Jaslyen can only laugh when she looks back on her time as coach and tutor at Howe. “Some of the kids are a handful, but I love them to death,” she said. “The best is with Kevin. They ask ‘Oh Kevin show us your highlight tape!’ and sure enough the first week they went home and watched it.  When they came back the next day it was ‘Oh Kevin, you’re so sick! Oh Kevin, you’re amazing!’ They follow him around wherever he goes.”

Jasbir, Jaslyen, and Kevin each have stories of tangible change they’ve already seen in the lives of the students they work with, from improved grades and self-esteem to better camaraderie on the court.  Each Cascade coach knows they’ve had an impact as they’ve passed on the skills that have allowed them to succeed as a student-athlete to a new generation.

“Education is your ticket to anything you want to be in life,” said Jasbir, reflecting on his responsibility as vice-principal. “Regardless of the background that you are from, education is the great equalizer of everything. If I can arm [my students] with that, then I’ve done my job.  Basketball for us was a vehicle that we could use to drive these kid’s academics, to combine them is just unbelievably exciting.”

Although the program has been cut short by strike action, Jasbir hopes that he will be able to extend the government grant that funds the program into the fall semester. At that time he will once again be looking to partner with UFV Athletics and the men and women of the Cascades varsity teams, bringing together the community in a simple, but great, idea.

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