Justin Kittredge always knew he wanted basketball to be a big part of his life. He just never knew it would take the course that it has in the last five years.
In 2007, the Medfield resident started an inner-city youth program, Shooting Touch Inc. He charged fees, and then raised additional funds at a gala to provide a $25,000 grant to a graduating college senior who could go anywhere in the world on a 10-month sabbatical with a clear mission: to use basketball, through clinics and education, to work with underprivileged children and help change the planet for the good.
“We think of the sabbatical as the basketball Peace Corps,’’ said Kittredge’s wife, Lindsey, a Wellesley native who played three sports at the Rivers School in Weston, captained the lacrosse team at the University of Vermont, and, after a career in computers, is the executive director of Shooting Touch.
In 2004, Justin Kittredge was laid off at Reebok.
“It was a tough time for me,’’ said Kittredge, now 35.
He had time on his hands, so he retreated to what always eased his mind: basketball. Kittredge played at Barnstable High and Northfield Mount Hermon School. In 2000, he graduated from James Madison University.
When he was laid off, he landed a job with a small shoe company, and served as an assistant coach for the Bay State Magic, an Amateur Athletic Union team. In 2006, he was rehired by Reebok, Kittredge said. “I didn’t have time to coach anymore.’’
He was living in South Boston and began teaching the fundamentals of basketball to a few city youths on weekends at the Boston Athletic Club.
“The kids started bringing their friends.’’ said Kittredge. “I was getting kids from Lynn and Dorchester. After a year I had 15, 20 kids’’
It wasn’t just hoops he wanted to offer, he said. “I wanted to mentor the kids, too. I really enjoyed helping them out.’’
Basketball couldn’t do it all. That’s where the grants came in.
A Dorchester resident, Boston College High graduate Tome Barros was the first recipient of a Shooting Touch grant. He attended Hampton University in Virginia, and was pondering his future after graduation in 2010.
“I wondered what was next for me,’’ said Barros.
He was told about Shooting Touch, and visited its website.
‘I love doing this. It helps me feel fulfilled in life. I hope it continues to grow. I know it will.’Justin Kittredge
With a $25,000 grant flashing on the screen, “my eyes lit up,’’ said Barros. “I figured this was right up my alley.’’
Barros could travel and be involved with basketball, which he had played in high school. He wrote several essays required by the program’s board of directors.
“I also sent them a YouTube video I was very proud of,’’ he said.
Poised and articulate, Barros was a unanimous selection.
His destination: Senegal, where Barros found children who were “gifted athletically but not fundamentally,’’ he said.
“It was a poor area,’’ Barros said. “The kids were looking for something to do after school so they wouldn’t get in trouble.’’
Beyond the basketball clinics, which drew 40 to 50 youths, Barros wanted to get more involved with their lives. He talked to them about life - the importance of being a leader; the importance of education; the threat of HIV. He communicated through a translator, then started picking up words on his own relating to basketball.
The experience had a profound effect on Barros.
“The kids changed me more than I changed them,’’ he said.
Barros continued his mission to Brazil and Cape Verde, his parents’ homeland.
This year’s recipient, Leah Westbrooks, is in Zimbabwe working at a medical clinic and teaching basketball in the village of Gulati. A native of Ireland, she played basketball at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland.
A headline across the top of the program’s website, www.shootingtouch.com, blares “Where in the world is Leah Westbrooks?’’ and provides a link to view her travel blog.
In an e-mail, Westbrooks described Gulati as “very rural, no running water, and unreliable electricity. We’re trying to get a sports ministry started. There’s a high rate of school dropouts in the village, mostly because of poverty, an inability to pay school fees, or they’ve been kicked out because of grades or being troublemakers.’’
Westbrooks works with about 30 dropouts.
“I call them ‘my crew,’ ’’ Westbrooks said. “We built a brand new basketball court. It took three months. For once in their lives they have a sense of accomplishment, which the community can not only see but be part of.
“What people accomplish here with so little continually amazes me.
“I’m still trying to get used to the African heat,’’ Westbrooks said, adding that she believes she has found her calling. “The grant was an opportunity of a lifetime.’’
The Shooting Touch board of directors includes former Celtics Dee Brown and Wayne Embry; Bob Hurley Sr., the legendary coach at St. Anthony High School in New Jersey; his son Bobby, who starred at Duke; ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan; and Concord native Sam Presti, who is general manager of the NBA’s Oklahoma Thunder franchise.
The elder Hurley gave a clinic at Roxbury Latin last summer, and is planning another one this year. Presti came aboard because of his ties with Newton North High coach Paul Connolly. Presti played basketball at Emerson College, where Connolly was assistant coach.
MacMullan, a former Boston Globe sports reporter, found time in her busy TV and writing life to be a board member after a direct appeal by Kittredge.
“I met her at an event in Boston and gave her a 30-second pitch,’’ he said.
“She was finishing a book’’ on Shaquille O’Neal, he said. “A few months later she called. I’ve always had a ton of respect for Jackie. She has a wonderful basketball mind.’’
Shooting Touch’s funding comes mostly from its yearly gala. Comedian Lenny Clarke ran an auction at both of them. Additional money comes from the $30-per-hour fee for the basketball clinics.
For those who can’t afford the fee, Kittredge gives free clinics at Boston Athletic Club on Sundays.
The program began humbly but has 60 youths in it now.
“It grew by word of mouth,’’ said Lindsey Kittredge. “It had a grass-roots effect.’’
Reebok’s connection to the basketball community and her husband’s AAU ties were a big help.
The Kittredges said they hope to raise enough money to send more than one graduate to faraway places every year.
“I always wanted to be in sports, helping kids,’’ said Lindsey.
Her husband was on the same page.
“I love doing this,’’ said Justin Kittredge. “It helps me feel fulfilled in life. I hope it continues to grow. I know it will.’’Lenny Megliola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.