Underprovided, unnoticed, these gems lay in the depths of impoverished segments of population. With the passionate and tireless effort by some and a stroke of luck, they came upon an opportunity to soar high and are defining new boundaries and achieving phenomenal success in the process.
These are the children of Hi5YouthFoundation. They are sent by parents to municipal schools where they get free lunch, uniform and are kept off the streets for at least half a day. They often come from extreme conditions in life; have absolutely no opportunity to engage or participate in sports; whose role models are often the street bullies or the local thugs; their after school activities often involve pelting stones at street lamps, extortion and bullying; - in summary, low expectations and aspirations in life.
With the advent of Hi 5, the kids in these schools get free professional basketball coaching, along with balls, jerseys and shoes (they return their shoes when they leave everyday, to ensure they are not sold). They learn discipline, work on fitness, train to play basketball; receive daily snack and ongoing lessons on hygiene and cleanliness and inculcate life skills. These trainings can be availed only by students whose family income is below poverty line. They even offer residential summer program for the kids. And what a transformation this has created in the youth basketball scene in Mumbai.
In a matter of 18 months, there are 1400 students (girls and boys) getting coached; 15 municipal schools have signed up, including a tribal school and Chembur Children’s home for abandoned children. Hi5YF employs 20 coaches, and 6 co-ordinators/social workers. The kids have improved dramatically and Hi5YF teams have begun participating and winning open tournaments around Mumbai! A couple of them have been selected for their district teams and state teams as well as national trials! And these are kids who had not touched a basketball in their lives previously!
The schools are recognizing that with very little investment, they are able to provide an unimaginable opportunity to their students. With the drive that comes out of a life of limited opportunities, the kids are working hard, learning the skills and executing to perfection. Watching them perform at tournaments is a heartwarming experience. The pipeline of schools and organizations waiting to receive training with Hi5YF is now at 27.
I spent 3 days traveling around Mumbai and spending time with Hi5YF kids during practice and team selections. The kids were competitive, courteous, passionate, grateful and happy to share their life changing stories. Here are some snippets and stories I heard during the 3 days with Hi5YF teams – it shows their hunger, aspirations and willingness to seize the opportunity with both hands and aim high!
‘RG, 10 years old, boy’: family consists of a single mom with 2 older brothers. Mom takes care of the family by selling flowers in front of temple. RG has taken to basketball and shows up for every practice. His mother drags him from practice regularly to help her tie the flowers for sale, while the 2 older brothers manage to evade her. Yet RG has never missed a practice and is now representing Hi 5 teams in open tournaments.
‘N, 14-year old, girl’: from tribal school outside of Mumbai. N is exceptionally talented, a prodigy. She thinks and executes to perfection – and has never played any sport before! N got selected for National tryouts, 8 months after being introduced to basketball. She did not have a birth certificate – her mom could only give a guesstimate –‘was born before the monsoons’. N did not want the Hi5YF coordinator to visit her village to help with the BC – she was embarrassed- her hut had no roof or a place to sit.
‘S, 12-year old, girl’: S is another stellar player whose dad, an auto driver, refused to let her join the coaching because girls were meant for household work, and sports spoiled them. Hi5YF’s Usha went to her house, showed her dad a few videos of S’s moves on the court and convinced him that S has his genes (he claimed to be a wrestler). She said with training S could turn out like Dangal-Babita! Surprise! – he wanted S and her younger sister to train together like the Dangal-girls and he shows up to watch them play!
‘AS, 10 year old, boy’: delivers paper to support the family, consisting of single mom and a sibling. He delivers papers in the mornings, goes to school and shows up religiously for practice in the evenings.
‘AM, 10-year old, boy’: AM cannot be separated from the court; walks around hugging a ball; plays night and day. He is there on court - dribbling, shooting, watching, cleaning up, all the time.
‘S and P, 11-year old, boys’: amazing strategic thinking and team play; cannot play without the other on-court!
‘Kattapa, 12-year old, boy’: rechristened after Bahubali! I had distributed Cadbury’s chocolate bars to all the kids. He found my husband standing next to them, and asked if he’d like to share. This from a kid who hardly gets these treats. He touched our hearts with his beautiful gesture!
-- a religious Municipal school where Hi5YF was informed that the parents did not want the girls (8-10) to get coached, while it was ok for boys. The girls wanted to learn the sports and sent their moms to speak on their behalf. Moms argued that they wanted a different life for their daughters – not just produce and take care of a stream of children. “Mujhe meri beti ko kuch banke dikana hai’”.
- Next, the school would not permit the girls to play because they had to wear jersey and shorts while playing. The girls reached a compromise with the school administrators – they would wear the jersey and shorts over their salwar-pants. The girls team is now doing extremely well! In fact, recently 11 moms have registered to learn basketball!
- A few girls from Devnar school were so passionate –“we are not doing too well now because we recently had holidays. Can you come back in one month and we’ll show you how much we’ve improved.”
Mulund school: Playing basketball and traveling for tournaments gives the girls an opportunity to get out of their neighborhoods. They don’t mind losing, but will ensure they play well enough to qualify for tournaments.
‘SS, 13-year old, boy’: SS was a school dropout, at-risk youth. SS would stand outside the court ridiculing the kids getting trained. He was missing his friends – they had turned to basketball. He then resorted to taunting the coach Kevin. Coach Kevin issued him a challenge – if you are that smart, try a few baskets. He came in and proved he was actually quite good. Kevin asked him to join the team, but only if he registered through the school. SS is now a 6-th grader and shows up for practice and tournaments without fail. He is also off the streets!
The coaches – most amazing, committed group of basketball professionals.
Coach Kevin – with an engineering degree, chose to find fulfillment coaching basketball to under privileged children.
Coach Naru – who gave up a lucrative job as coach in International school, so he can work with kids for whom this is the only opportunity in life.
Coach Arun – 4th year engineering student; produces excellent players; parents opposed to him playing basketball – he coaches 4 days a week without their knowledge.
Coaches Zoheb and Arafat: grew up in a segregated neighborhood – work best for schools in that neighborhood because they understand and are sensitive to the culture.
Coach Vignesh – an MCom graduate who finds fulfillment in coaching tribal schools than the city schools – he believes that they are inherently more talented, receptive and follow instructions better.
The discipline: At an open tournament organized by private club, when Hi5YF kids showed up in their jerseys printed with the school names, the guards were visibly upset. “Now we have these kids from the slums messing up our campus, courts, etc. We have to clean up after them.” They were not aware of the discipline and hygiene habits inculcated among the Hi5YF kids. The kids walk in with a large trash bag wherever they go and pick up any trash, before and after their games. Upon seeing the kids in action on and off the court, the guards came over and apologized to the coaches and the kids. Boy, did it make the kids glow?
Hi5YouthFoundation was pioneered by Usha and Sundar Radhakrishnan, a Silicon Valley executive, who relocated to Mumbai for business and personal reasons. Combined with the drive to work with the local community children and their love for sports, they researched the landscape for one year before they formed Hi5YouthFoundation. The organization has been providing free professional basketball coaching along with equipment, snacks and kit to the players. The school provides the space for coaching – Hi5YF prepares the court for the training. They hire coaches and coordinators who travel to various schools to train the students and accompany them to various tournaments.