What began as a simple game of basketball has emerged as a quest to lift a community from the hardships of poverty. Founded in 2008 with a mission to empower youth through sports, Hoops Care International (HCI) has become a champion for education, health, and social services for the 8,000 families in the Amanful neighborhood of Ghana’s Cape Coast. Today HCI works on and off the court to tackle some of the region’s most pressing issues, such as malaria, teen pregnancy, and literacy.
While Cape Coast may be best known for its eponymous castle, which is notorious for its role as the most active African prison of the slave trade, the city on the sea has long been home to a community of fishermen and fishmongers. In recent years, however, environmental factors such as pollution and global warming have caused fish to become less abundant, making it difficult for local residents to earn a living. Many people have fallen into poverty, with no access to basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing.
That was the grim reality to which Claudius Thompson returned in 2005 when he came back to visit his childhood home. “What hit me was the number of young kids wandering about in the afternoon with nothing much to do. Back in the days, kids stayed closer to home. But it seemed that most of the kids were now coming out to somehow fend for themselves and their families,” Thompson reflected.
The disturbing conditions were brought into sharp focus during a trip to his old high school. The school’s basketball court where he’d played as a teenager had fallen into disrepair. Even more troubling to Thompson was that no one even seemed to be using it any more. This became apparent when he could not find a ball to play with − not a single one − in all of Cape Coast.
The Joy of Basketball
Rather than getting discouraged by what he found, the dismal scene spurred Thompson to take action. He enlisted a friend to bring him a ball from Ghana’s capital city of Accra, located several hours away. He then rounded up kids from the neighborhood to join him for a game, and for a few hours that day, the joy of basketball returned to Amanful.
The following day, it was the children who came looking for Thompson, and the seeds of an idea were sown. Over the next few years, Thompson returned several more times to Cape Coast, each time making a point to meet the children on the court for a game. In 2008, he quit his job in Nigeria as a systems engineer and permanently moved back to Amanful to establish HCI as a non-governmental organization (NGO).
“It was my calling,” said Thompson, whose generous spirit becomes apparent the instant he begins to speak. He is not the first in his family to have such a calling. His grandmother, who was a head teacher, often took in children from surrounding villages and raised them as her own; his mother ran an orphanage. It’s as if taking care of others was something he was raised to do.
Drawing from his own experience as an athlete, Thompson created HCI based on the notion that sports could be used to empower young people by helping them develop important life skills and values, such as leadership, teamwork, work ethic, honesty, and integrity. HCI has since become a multi-faceted organization active in a broad range of areas, including education and health. Thompson hopes to empower a community by expanding its mission to address the most critical needs of the local population.
Basketball Nets and Malaria Nets
Oftentimes those needs are revealed as he gets to know kids on the basketball court. Thompson explained, “When a child gets sick from malaria, he may become irregular. This causes him to miss practice, to miss school.” Malaria is the number one killer of children under the age of five in Ghana. Those that survive are often left debilitated by serious complications such as brain infections. After seeing first hand the devastation caused by this rampant disease, Thompson took it upon himself to do something to about it.
HCI began to organize regular workshops and outreach activities to teach young mothers the steps they can take to prevent the disease from infecting their children. Through these outreach activities, Hoops Care has distributed over 400 insecticide-treated nets to those most vulnerable.
Thompson likes to make a connection between basketball nets and malaria nets, as he did with an event called “Night for Nets,” where teams competed in a three-on-three half-court basketball tournament to raise money for mosquito nets. “For every shot you make, you are fighting malaria,” he told his players.
Most recently, HCI launched an online fundraiser through Global Giving called “Save 1000 Children At Risk From Malaria in Ghana.” In just its first month, it had raised over $2,000 for its campaign against the deadly disease. Donations can be made through HCI’s website. Thompson’s goal is to wipe out malaria-related fatalities in his community. “I don’t want to see the death of another baby in Amanful,” he said.
Other critical health and social issues facing the Cape Coast community include teen pregnancy and HIV/AIDS. In addition to providing outreach to young mothers, Hoops Care also organizes a number of activities during which young women can discuss topics such as healthy relationships, female hygiene, and HIV and STD awareness. In July, it partnered with ProWorld and City Guards to host a 10K AIDS race. HIV-related material and condoms were distributed during the event, while Ghana Health Services provided free HIV screenings.
Compounding the problem of widespread disease is the fact that good health care can be difficult to come by in a region where the doctor-to-patient ratio is one to 6,000. Patients are routinely denied treatment if they are unable to afford a health card. To address this issue, HCI has recently initiated a program to register people for national health treatment, making them eligible to receive care.
Another core objective of Thompson’s organization is to keep kids in school and ultimately help them obtain gainful employment. According to HCI’s research, more than one-third of the 217,000 people living in Cape Coast have no formal education, and only 52 percent of people 15 or older are literate. Thompson believes that a number of the skills needed to excel in sports will transfer to the classroom. Discipline, commitment, and punctuality are stressed during sports clinics, and children who participate in the athletic programs are encouraged to come by HCI’s office to do homework. Part of that office has been converted to a library, where anyone can drop in and read a book. Tutoring in English and computer skills is also available for both children and adults.
Thompson has also helped several young adults obtain athletic scholarships to study at colleges abroad. He posts videos of his most promising athletes on YouTube, which he then directs to Jack Whitehead, a U.S. college recruiter who has acted as an advisor to Thompson since HCI’s founding. Hoops Care has also obtained athletic scholarships at regional high schools for eight boys and four girls. In addition to the cost of educational materials, students in Ghana must pay for their high school education, causing many of them to quit school while they are still young teens. Now Thompson is working to set up a scholarship fund to help young people further their education.
A Growing List of Social Causes
To support its growing list of social causes, HCI relies on the strength of its athletic programs, which have expanded in tandem with the organization’s role in the community. To its original after-school basketball program, Hoops Care has added clinics and camps in soccer, volleyball, and football. The organization now works with 12 regional schools, from which students are often recruited for its programs. During school visits, HCI staff and interns sometimes teach classes and provide coaching for school teams. HCI also hosts independent competitions and sporting events. Thompson believes these programs and tournaments give kids a “celebrative” feeling of accomplishment. This was certainly the case this summer when he led his neighborhood basketball team to a regional victory at the Indomie Community Dunks tournament. It was a proud moment for the Cape Coast community. “They even got TV exposure,” boasted Thompson.
HCI’s athletic programs have grown not just in the variety of sports it offers, but also in the specific populations it serves. Working with a grassroots organization, City of Refuge, Hoops Care led a sports camp for kids rescued from slavery associated with the fishing trade. It also collaborated with Hope 4 Girls Africa to conduct a basketball clinic for disadvantaged girls. When a couple of disabled individuals approached Thompson about starting a program for the handicapped community, he put together a wheelchair basketball league. With no prior experience coaching wheelchair athletes, Thompson taught himself by watching YouTube videos of other wheelchair leagues. He has also put on clinics for people with physical and intellectual disabilities. In October, HCI partnered with two U.S.-based organizations to host a Disability Empowerment Conference.
With a Little Help From Our Friends…
When asked if he may be trying to take on too much by serving so many different groups and needs, Thompson admitted that it’s an overwhelming task, but adds, “They’re counting on us.” Currently there are no other organizations in Amanful that provide the type of social services or athletic programs that Hoops Care does, though Thompson conceded, “I cannot do it alone.” Nonetheless, he is an extremely determined and resourceful person who has a knack for getting things done, just as he did during that 2005 visit when he pulled together that first basketball game.
As he did back then, Thompson enlists the help of others to make things happen. In addition to the six staff memberships who help him run the organization, he is constantly forging relationships with other charitable organizations and businesses to help with everything from fundraising to co-hosting events. Partners like the international drum and dance company, African Soul Train, are helping to spread the word about HCI’s mission through special events. U.S.-based groups like Back 2 Basics Kids Foundation and New York’s St. Bonaventure women’s basketball team have held equipment drives to provide shoes, uniforms, and other needed supplies. Many of the mosquito nets HCI has distributed were purchased with money raised by Niigata Sports, a Japanese basketball team.
Thompson also relies on the help of interns and volunteers, which he recruits through the Hoops Care website and other NGOs such as ProWorld. He welcomes anyone who is interested in volunteering in Ghana to check out HCI’s website and contact him, emphasizing that there are many opportunities to come and be a part of Hoops Care – taking a gap year, internships, etc. His hope is that people who come to volunteer with HCI will become ambassadors for the organization when they return home, generating continued support for the work the team is doing.
Perhaps Hoops Care’s most valuable resources are its 114 youth members who represent the organization in the community and help carry out the day-to-day activities. Some members help with the athletic programs, while others help with outreach and educational activities. There is also a special basketball team just for members. It is from this pool of HCI’s most committed participants that it chooses recipients for scholarships.
Like any non-profit or NGO, one of the biggest challenges for Hoops Care is raising funds and generating a sustainable source of revenue. Getting the online donation button on the Global Giving website was a huge boost for the organization. Thompson would also love to secure a long-term grant. One of the big projects he and his staff are currently undertaking is the launch of a store in the tourist section of Cape Coast, where sales could help provide an ongoing source of income. Of course, like everything HCI does, the store would serve the dual purpose of benefitting some of the most disadvantaged people in the area by providing a place for them to sell their wares. HCI staff is already working with individuals from the special needs community to help them sell their jewelry, bags, and shoes. It is also training young mothers in the craft of batik dying so that they can sell these products in stores and elsewhere. This Young Mothers entrepreneurial training program is one of the things Thompson is most proud of.
With everything Thompson has accomplished in the last four years, he actually has quite a long list of things to be proud of. Thompson has truly become the caretaker of an entire community, where he ultimately hopes to eradicate poverty. “We really love what we’re doing and are just trying to find ways to get it done.”
* Photos courtesy of Hoops Care International