Hoop dreams: Alta High student earns grant money to help refugee children play basketball
DRAPER — Jonathan Diener loves basketball.
The 16-year-old loves the sport enough that he wants to share it with everyone, including kids new to Utah who don't get the opportunity to play much of the popular sport on their own.
"Basketball is a huge culture thing here," the Alta High School sophomore said. "I want to teach kids the rules, give them skills to play the game and help acclimate them to the lifestyle here."
What started last year as a simple project to earn his Eagle Scout ranking ended up much bigger when the refugee children Jonathan invited to play showed up with amazing and seemingly inborn talent. Yet many donned dress shoes, shoes too small or some that were completely worn out.
As a power forward on his school team, Jonathan organized a few of his friends and teammates to help offer basketball skills clinics for about 30 local refugee children recently relocated to Utah with their families from areas of Asia and Africa, including Myanmar, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Kenya and Congo.
"Because most of these children come from families with no car, they must find their own ways to exercise," Jonathan wrote in a grant application. "By teaching the refugee children basketball skills, we are giving them the tools to go out and play in their local parks and neighborhoods, promoting healthy lifestyles."
He said his ability to play basketball well gives him the confidence he needs to work hard in school and get a good education, something refugee children often struggle to obtain.
"They're from families that are sometimes very large," said Catherine Findley, executive director of character education at the American Preparatory Academy in Draper, which gathered the kids together for the clinic. "Many of them don't qualify for recreational programs and they don't often have the opportunity to play basketball whenever they want."
The focus of the clinic was to provide a knowledge of the basic skills of the sport, but Jonathan also tried to emphasize academic performance and teamwork, which Findley said works wonders in these kids' lives.
"It starts with one person," she said. "As soon as one person looks outside themselves, others will do the same."
At the end of the series of clinics, Jonathan had promised to reward one of the kids — the one who listened the best throughout — with a new pair of basketball shoes.
"When we presented that pair of shoes, they all wanted them so bad, they were crying," he said. It moved him to want to do more.
On Tuesday, Jonathan was one of 25 individuals who represented home-grown nonprofit organizations throughout the state that were chosen to receive $2,500 in grant money from SelectHealth, the insurance arm of Intermountain Healthcare. The Select25 event began with the nonprofit's 25th anniversary in 2008 and has become an annual event, awarding more than $62,000 to fledgling local charitable organizations each year.
Hoops 4 Bright Futures, Jonathan's project, intends to use the money to buy each of the kids new shoes and their own basketball.
"It was always his intent to learn from this process," said Jonathan's mother, Sherry Diener. "This turned out to be a great way to help these kids and we want it to continue."
The Hoops 4 Bright Futures program was selected from 300 applicants for the Select25 awards, presented Tuesday. Each winner was selected for its efforts to promote community health and enrich lives, said SelectHealth President and CEO Patricia Richards.
While the selection process is "rigorous," Richards said she's confident each of the winners will use the modest grant money to make an impact in the communities they serve.
"The stories are what make this so important," she said.
This year's Select25 recipients include groups that provide health care to the elderly to after-school programs for children, to safe centers for victims of abuse and programs that provide necessary services to vulnerable populations.
Richards hopes that by sharing and learning about outreach efforts throughout the community, other Utahns will also be inspired to "pay it forward."
"We can do more for these kids," said Sherry Diener. "It was just too hard to give one pair of shoes to just one person."
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