SAVING OUR YOUTH

Bolton: Church basketball league teaches fundamentals for every day life

Associate EditorFebruary 27, 2014 

— ‘QUIET PLEASE. We’re getting ready to pray.”

That’s how coach Willie Green commonly calls things to order at games and practices at the Bethlehem Youth Basketball League he directs at the Wiley Kennedy Family Life Center. The youngsters form a circle and join hands while a volunteer from among them steps in the middle to lead the prayer; family, friends and others in attendance sit quietly, heads bowed.

Prayer changes things. And God knows we need a change when it comes to our some of our youth today. There is a war for the souls and lives of our children. Just take a look at the headlines on almost any day: Another young person has gone to jail, killed or been killed.

As Columbia and Richland County leaders and law enforcement agencies focus anew on curbing gang and youth violence, I’ve been writing about programs and efforts aimed at helping our children become productive, law-abiding citizens.

Sports, while not the only remedy, are a great tool to help address the challenges we face with our youths. Participants learn discipline, team work, loyalty and work ethic even as they build their bodies and learn to play their favorite games. Add in the guidance of caring adults and a dose of Jesus, and you’ve got a winning formula.

“Our mission is to provide an engine to develop athletic talents while instilling essential fundamentals that can be applied to everyday life,” coach Green shared with me via email. “The Youth Basketball Ministry offers a Christian environment with a ‘sports-like’ feel, where anyone can come and enjoy themselves in fellowship and recreation.”

“Christian growth is emphasized along with a concentration on learned skills and abilities vital to their overall character development. Our goal is to ensure every participant walks away with a heightened level of resilience, self-discipline, and sportsmanship both on and off the court.”

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Prayer is a natural part of that, he said. “Prayer is incorporated as a means to promote solidarity among athletes, coaches, parents and spectators,” he wrote. “As a church-based league, we recognize the importance of balancing competition with Christianity and understand our role in shaping participants’ passion for both.”

My family likes the league at the Wiley Kennedy center, which is a part of Bethlehem Baptist Church on Eastman Street in north Columbia, where the Rev. Dr. Anthony A. McCallum is the pastor. As a matter of fact, we like it so much that instead of placing our 5- and 8-year-old sons in a league operated by the many churches, public parks and other places we pass on our 25-minute ride to practices and games, my wife and I gladly make the trek to north Columbia.

In the four years that at least one of our sons has been playing basketball, we’ve found it to be a welcoming, nurturing atmosphere. Not only are they learning the game, but they’ve made new friends and are growing in other ways.

The league, which has a winter and summer seasons and serves kids ages 4 to 18, has touched the lives of hundreds of children in its 10 years of existence. “We typically have around 220 children in the Winter and 250 or more in the Summer,” Mr. Green wrote.

While the league caters to boys and girls, it also offers cheerleading to girls seeking another outlet. Caring, engaged adults teach and guide the cheerleaders.

The Bethlehem league is just one of many offered by churches and rec centers in the area. As a matter of fact, some of the Bethlehem teams participate in another one of them as well.

In the Winter some of our teams play in the Christian Youth Basketball League started by Jimmy Easterby of First Presbyterian and Louie King of North Trenholm Baptist Church,” Mr. Green said. “This league is a coalition of churches that believe in youth sports and bring kids and adults to knowing Jesus Christ.”

Teams from churches such as North Trenholm Baptist, First Presbyterian, Trinity Episcopal, Shandon United Methodist play in that league. Two of my four god-daughters played on Bethlehem teams in the Christian Youth Basketball League. On my first visit, I was pleased to see that the players were led in a Bible lesson and short prayer before the games.

Sports — basketball in this instance — provide an outlet that helps lower aggression and teach self control and discipline.

The key is to make sure that the environment is safe and positive and that those overseeing the programs are quality people. While organized high school or college sports greatly influence the lives of those who play, not everyone can compete at those levels, and most don’t make those teams. But everyone who wants to gets an opportunity to be a part of the squad in leagues offered at churches and rec leagues.

It isn’t surprising that a group of pastors who have been meeting to address gangs and violence have discussed bringing back midnight basketball, a tool used years ago to help get kids off the streets and into more productive pursuits that allow them to form friendships, hone their skills and be physically fit.

While that isn’t as prevalent as it used to be, you still can find some venues, such as Bible Way Church of Atlas Road, that offer midnight hoops events. As a matter of fact, tonight many will stop by Bible Way for the A.C. Jackson Wellness Center’s annual “Midnight Madness” event, which will include live entertainment and a step competition as well as basketball games. The step team competition will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., followed by the basketball games.

On Sunday, the Bethlehem Youth Basketball League will hold its annual banquet at which all the players and teams will be recognized; those who excelled in school also will receive special recognition.

I always see it as a time to say “thank you” to the director, coaches and others who work so patiently with the youngsters. My sons definitely have grown as they’ve been taught and even challenged at times to apply themselves and push a little harder.

One day after practice, my wife told me our 5-year-old wanted to quit as they were running a drill but the coach wouldn’t let him. I later thanked that coach for emphasizing an important life lesson: Never give up.

It’s a lesson all our youth need to learn.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

Saving Our Youth

An occasional look at organizations in our community that are working to channel young people into positive pursuits.

Previous columns

Feb. 13, 2014 - The right kind of diversion can keep youths out of trouble, help them succeed

Jan. 8, 2014 - Turning baseball into a teaching tool

Jan. 5, 2014 - More police alone isn’t the answer to gangs in Columbia

Dec. 12, 2013 - Columbia community must come up with ways to save our kids


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