Gabrielle Abelard was in her Milton kitchen last week when she heard a sound that’s become less familiar during this period of social distancing. Her daughter, Anjolie, a fourth-grader, was laughing throughout her first virtual meeting with her new Shooting Touch teammates.
Shooting Touch aims to close the opportunity gaps for underserved girls in Boston by providing affordable, or even free, AAU basketball programs. The nonprofit, which serves more than 200 girls in the metro area, provides athletes in grades 3 through 9 with guidance on nutrition, mental health, and strength and conditioning.
When Boston Public Schools closed on March 17, the program went virtual within 24 hours. According to co-founder Lindsey Kittredge, the vast majority of Shooting Touch participants jumped on the opportunity to participate in a valuable extracurricular activity, including Anjolie and her sister, Alix, a ninth-grader.
“For us, the athletic program is a large portion, but the other is social development, family belonging, and really having a safe place to go,” said Kittredge, who founded the organization 12 years ago in South Boston with her husband, Justin.
“Everyone’s had to pivot [during the pandemic] to be as resourceful as possible, and we’ve found that the more structure [students] have throughout the day, the more apt they’ll be to do [academic] online courses the way they should. We’re only a few weeks in, but hopefully they’ll stay on track.”
Boston Latin Academy eighth-grader Tahira Muhammad has been on track academically and athletically since joining Shooting Touch two years ago. The Hyde Park resident recently earned a financial aid package to attend and play for ISL powerhouse Noble & Greenough next fall.
Muhammad’s mother, Raushanah, is a middle school teacher in the BPS system, so she knows the importance of extracurriculars for students during this difficult time.
“I get e-mails from students, saying, ‘Miss, I have nothing to do,’ ” said Raushanah Muhammad.
“I’m so grateful that [Tahira] has something else now when we’re cooped up at home. [Shooting Touch] has already become something that’s really rounded her out as a student-athlete. It’s definitely more than just a hobby.”
Leading the charge for virtual engagement is New Mission girls’ basketball coach Vinh Bui, the assistant program director of Shooting Touch Boston and coach of its fourth- and ninth-grade teams. Now his programming includes film sessions on YouTube Live, fitness programs with a strength coach on Zoom, and interactive nutrition and wellness challenges where students can earn prizes.
Bui coaches and trains his niece, Christina Pham, and they’re able to demonstrate individual drills for players to try at home. Pham is a rising star and was a contributor on Nobles’s NEPSAC Class AA championship team this winter, although she’s not the only one keeping her fellow players motivated.
ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan and ex-NBA player Brian Scalabrine are involved with the program, and Scalabrine recently posted a video to help Shooting Touch athletes work on their balance.
“I'm just trying to give people something to focus on during a really tough time,” Scalabrine said.
On the subject of guest appearances, Bui added, “It's about letting kids know you're not alone and someone does care about your progress.”
From top to bottom, Shooting Touch cares about its student-athletes. Nobles coach Alex Gallagher has been president of the board of directors for the Boston branch for the past five years and has taken his players on trips to support Rwanda’s Shooting Touch program.
Gallagher explained that in recent years, the organization has shifted more focus toward its Boston programming, a pursuit that’s become even more vital now in a time of isolation.
“Shooting Touch has always been about AAU done the right way,” said Gallagher, who has steered Nobles to seven NEPSAC titles over the past nine years.
“It’s built something holistic to give kids a chance to feel the love of the game and teach them incredibly valuable lessons. To put those resources in the hands of kids, many of whom never had the chance to access them, is an unbelievable message.
“Right now in Boston, with some of the challenges we’re facing in the pandemic, [Shooting Touch] is stepping in and filling a void that’s just critical to kids getting through this the best they can.”