Vin Bui met the initial offer of financial assistance and basketball support with a requisite dose of skepticism, narrowing his eyes just enough to make any self-respecting Dorchester native proud. But since the AAU team he was building for his niece, Christina Pham, and her fellow players was still in its infancy, he figured it couldn’t hurt to listen to a pitch. Nothing ventured, nothing gained and all. So he took a call from a local organization called Shooting Touch.
He had no idea it would change his world.
“I always tell the story, and it still makes me laugh, how Shooting Touch swooped in, gave me the spiel, and I ignored them, like the true Dorchester native I am, a cynic by nature,” Bui said. “I figured it was a basketball pyramid scheme, too good to be true. Money, enrichment, and education. Come on. But I took the chance and called them up. They ended up being everything they said and more. Over the years, it’s only gotten better.”
Had Bui heard of Shooting Touch before, he would not have been surprised. The program, which grew from its roots in Rwanda to expand into Boston, defines itself as “an international sport-for-development organization whose mission is to use the mobilizing power of basketball to bridge health and opportunity gaps for youth and women facing racial, gender, and economic inequalities.”
Think one part basketball and one part health education policy, and then imagine putting them together to make something extraordinary. From sponsoring an AAU team in the city to sending players on an international relief trip abroad, what you get is an ongoing lesson in how small acts of empowerment for those who have it least but appreciate it most can truly make the world a better place.
As we speak, seven years after joining forces with Shooting Touch, Bui, Pham, and Pham’s fellow basketball player Tahira Muhammed are 6,000 miles across the world, completing a circle that Shooting Touch founder Lindsey Kittredge could barely imagine more than a decade ago, when she and her husband started the grassroots program. As part of a group of 25 students and faculty from Shooting Touch and the Noble and Greenough School (where both young women go to school and play on the championship-winning basketball team), their current trip to Rwanda connects two chambers of the same charitable heart, with Rwandan Shooting Touch participants and their Boston counterparts meeting for the first time.
“It is pretty emotional,” Kittredge said recently. “I always had the dream of bringing one team a year from Boston to Rwanda and this is the start of that, to have that bridge be built, to open and create global education and perspective on these two demographics.
“It’s pretty mind-blowing. And it’s proving the point and seeing the future potential of this sport and what it can build, how you can reach anybody in any demographic, any environment, any geographic presence or background, and you can make an impact for positive health.”
To help understand it best, think of Shooting Touch as being built on two primary pillars — basketball and women’s health. See it as living proof of how each pillar can keep the other up, and realize how it can do it in a country once ravaged by genocide with long-standing human rights issues rooted in misogyny and gender-based violence just as faithfully as it does in Boston neighborhoods such as Dorchester and Roxbury. These are the local places where, in the words of former board chair, current board member, and Nobles girls’ basketball coach Alex Gallagher, “middle school girls, and particularly middle school-aged people of color, are the most underserved.”
Enter Shooting Touch, with programs in sports and initiatives for health. In Rwanda, women’s health clinics run concurrently with basketball skills events, serving women from the youngest to oldest ages, offering vaccinations, malaria and HIV screenings, examinations, and information free for all. The level of empowerment that goes with that is almost impossible to calculate, just as the network of experience, people, and contacts young women in Boston can make through the program. When kids are empowered, when they see opportunities they might have never known existed, they head into an adult world much better prepared for success.
And when those two worlds collide? An explosion of empowerment.
“For the Shooting Touch team the significance of this [trip] is massive,” said Sam Waterstone, the communications and development manager based in Rwanda. “Despite the shared mission of the two programs, they can often feel disconnected from one another because the contexts of the beneficiaries are so vastly different. But at the end of the day, this trip gives us an opportunity to tell a story that our world desperately needs to hear — in the words of Maya Angelou, ’We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.’
“It doesn’t matter if you’re from inner-city Boston, or from a tiny village in the Rwandan countryside, basketball is an escape, a lifeline. The daily struggles of a girl living in urban Boston and rural Rwanda are totally different, but the parallels are undeniable — both deal with gender-based violence and abuse, mental health issues, and unequal access to recreational opportunities, quality education, and opportunities for economic mobility.
“And those are the exact issues that Shooting Touch addresses in both locations, using the sport of basketball as a powerful tool for bringing the community together, mobilizing resources, and slowly but surely shifting the culture within this patriarchal society.”
In the words of Bui: “Shooting Touch has changed our lives. Literally. That’s not a cliché.”
That’s power, used for good, to change the world. Bravo.