Celebrated NBA and UConn basketball standout Emeka Okafor doesn’t just believe in the power dreams, but in the importance of every young person having them—which is why he recently donated $100,000 to Husky Sport. His gift is an extension of an initial donation of $250,000 to the program in 2007.
Okafor’s first gift allowed for the expansion in the number of trips per week Husky Sport could take to Hartford. Since 2007 the yearly enrollment in the service learning courses associated with Husky Sport went from 40 to 100.
“These students engage in a curriculum on sport based youth development in low income neighborhoods with a strong infusion of cultural competency education,” said Jennifer Bruening, Ph.D., Husky Sport director and associate professor of educational leadership. “These students typically say that their experience with Husky Sport evolves from believing that they have something to give, to expressing that what they’ve given pales in comparison to how much they’ve learned from the class and their time with the kids in Hartford.
Founded in 2003 by UConn’s Neag School of Education, this far-reaching community engagement initiative provides children in Hartford’s North End with a broad range of in-school, afterschool, and weekend programs focusing on sports, physical activity, nutrition, academic enrichment and life skills.
Led by UConn faculty, staff and student mentors and conducted in partnership with the City of Hartford, several Hartford Public Schools and community agencies, Husky Sport encourages kindergarteners to 12th-graders to become not just their best selves, but to believe in their best selves. Its school-day programs focus on academic success, while afterschool and weekend programs tackle topics as broad and essential as accountability, sportsmanship, conflict resolution, college preparation and community pride.
“There are many avenues to success,” said Okafor. A No. 2 pick in the 2004 NBA draft, he graduated from UConn with a 3.8 GPA and bachelor’s degree in finance in just three years. “It’s OK if you don’t play for the Rockets. You can be a rocket scientist. It’s OK if you don’t play for the Rams. You can be a veterinarian.”
It’s these kinds of ambitious, but attainable, dreams that Husky Sport encourages, Okafor said, and why he’s so committed to the program. Since his initial gift to Husky Sport, Husky Sport has expanded its service learning course opportunities in Storrs, the number of UConn students involved in Husky Sport, and the number of programs operated in Hartford.
Since its founding, Husky Sport has provided more than 100,000 hours of academic, health and other support services to more than 1,500 Hartford schoolchildren. Among its many successes is the Read & Raise school-based reading program that offers youth who participate incentives like extra recess time, healthy food parties and trips to UConn.
Although the program has the potential to expand to other areas of the state, staff have purposely kept it focused on children living in the Clay Arsenal, North East, Blue Hills and Upper Albany neighborhoods of Hartford’s North End. “The goal is for the program to provide a concentrated and continuous presence, and to show youths—as well as their families—the successes and possibilities that can come from focusing on academics, personal and social growth and healthy lifestyles,” said Bruening.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the program is when former participants become UConn or other college grads, Bruening said—though for many young people, dreams of college are not the draw: “Often, it’s the association with sports, particularly UConn sports that gets kids initially interested.”
Indeed, UConn sports are extremely popular in Hartford, where many young people and their families follow the careers of alumni like Okafor, who currently is in his ninth NBA season as a starting center for the Washington Wizards. Before that, he spent three seasons with the New Orleans Hornets and five with the Charlotte Bobcats. At UConn, he was an NCAA Tournament Outstanding Player, two-time NABC Defensive Player of the Year and Big East Player of the Year.
Many youths also get excited when they hear that Okafor’s fellow 2004 UConn NCAA basketball championship teammate Justin Evanovich, Ph.D., is Husky Sport’s assistant director. But then they learn the program provides countless other aspects to get excited about, too, including how they’ll benefit from:
- Improving their academic and physical abilities
- Working with mentors and peers
- Connecting with their community
- Applying the skills they learn from Husky Sport to all aspects of their lives
- Believing in themselves and their abilities
“Sports is the initial bond, but then we use it as the common denominator to teach, bring people together and to build positive, lasting relationships between people from very different lifestyles and backgrounds,” said Evanovich. “Since everything we do at Husky Sport involves collaborating with a school or agency in some way, there’s a lot of power sharing going on. We at UConn bring our strengths, the school or agency brings its strengths, and together we give the kids something really powerful to take away.”
That idea of being “powerful”—that every young person has the power and potential to become his or her best self—is something Okafor also believes in, and that his continued support of Husky Sport proves.
“Connecticut is a big part of who I am, and who I have become,” Okafor said, “and I’m privileged to be able to help in any way.”
Information from a Courant story was used for part of this story.