If I know anything about Rasul Jackson, a 14-year old from West Philly, it’s that he loves the game of basketball. And having had the pleasure of coaching him for a few seasons in the Penn West Philadelphia Basketball League, I can safely say that the kid’s pretty good at it, too.
Once the final bell rings, you’ll be hard-pressed to find much student engagement in Philly middle schools coordinated by the School District of Philadelphia. But irrespective of who may be ultimately accountable, the fact is that, by and large, Rasul and other middle-school children of West Philadelphia don’t have many opportunities to take part in productive and engaging extracurricular activities like sports or fine/performing arts. And here, my enormously talented and passionate classmates, is where you all come in.
I’ve seen a good bit of the natural gifts and trained skills that Penn students possess at various events and shows over the last four years, and if there’s any better combination of diverse talent and intellectual capacity on this side of Ancient Rome, it would be news to me. But we didn’t get here alone — somewhere along the way, a coach, parent or teacher provided an incredible, motivating boost. Living in the West Philly neighborhood affords us the perfect opportunity to pay it forward and bolster that same self-discovery in youth whose true potential may otherwise go largely untapped.
Currently, dozens of student groups and courses work with middle schoolers in the neighborhood at some point during the year. And I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize Community School Student Partnerships for its extensive involvement. CSSP director and College senior Jamie Tomczuk estimates that about 350 Penn students connect with 850 children in the program yearly in activities ranging from homework to hopscotch, after most of the staffs in the six West Philly schools have gone home for the day.
But joining an established initiative like CSSP isn’t the only way to help the community. Giving back in your own way — translating your unique talents or interests into an after-school program — is a relatively unexplored method that I’ve seen work. With little more than a strong passion for basketball and a stronger desire to engage West Philly youth, Matt Imprink, a 2007 Penn grad, started PWBL in 2003, and it has remained student-run since. Yes, it takes effort and commitment. But nothing compares to making a difference by sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm with an eager, unpretentious 12-year-old.
The benefits of extracurricular involvement during early adolescence transcend the activity itself. At such an important stage in life, when many children develop the independence to make personal choices while remaining impressionable and easily influenced, activities outside of school hours help shape a child’s character, for better or for worse. But you don’t have to take it from me. Rasul articulates the point quite nicely.
“My temper got a lot better from working with my teammates. I feel more comfortable reading in front of other people because we read as a team during classroom time before practice. And a lot of us would’ve done something stupid or gotten ourselves in trouble without the league,” he recently said of PWBL’s impact.
And it’s a two-way street. Middle-school students are old enough to be cognizant of the issues or barriers they may face, yet young enough to still have incredible dreams of overcoming them. Watching them continue to persevere each day — despite the attempts by some to prescribe a mediocre destiny for them — is an inspiring lesson for even the worldliest Penn student. Matt’s idea to found the league has probably taught me as many lessons as it’s taught Rasul. And after witnessing him play ball with such passion in his eyes, a million-dollar grin and a keen understanding that it’s ultimately just a game, I feel Rasul himself has taught me a few things, too.
Jonathan Wright is a College senior from Memphis, Tenn. His e-mail address is email@example.com. <
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