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Noble & Greenough players combine with Shooting Touch in outreach program to Rwanda

Courtesy of Shooting Touch

DEDHAM, Mass. -- There are many ways to define greatness.

The Noble & Greenough High School Girls Basketball team is in the midst of an unprecedented run of success. With a record 13 consecutive Independent School League (ISL) titles, as well as five straight New England Prep School Athletic Council (NEPSAC) Class A championships, the Bulldogs are giving new meaning to the term dynasty.

Yet these players continue to impress both on and off the court.

Along with a group of independent students and a portion of the school’s class on genocide, eight Bulldogs traveled to Rwanda for eleven days last month.

Beginning their stay in the capital city of Kigali, they visited some important memorials to the Rwandan Genocide that tore the Eastern African nation apart 22 years ago. From there, the students moved to the countryside at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV), which admits orphans and other underprivileged Rwandan children who have been affected by the tragedy.

They distributed vital supplies, assisted in the education of these children, and through the programs established by Boston-based non-profit Shooting Touch, used basketball as a tool to help bring young generations of Rwandans together under the unity of sport.

“The country has essentially created a policy where there are no more ethnic divisions. Before there were Hutus and Tutsis, but today they are all Rwandans,” explained Ben Snyder, the professor of Noble’s class on Genocide and leader of the trip.

He continued, “The main focus of this trip was to create that deep personal connection between Rwandan and American youth, and work on things together both on and off the court.”

On the court, the Bulldogs ran clinics and training sessions to help educate Rwandan children on how to play the game. Towards the end of their stay, they made waves by competing with a professional Rwandan women’s team, and by edging an all-star team comprised of high-school age Rwandan boys.

The end result was a group of wide-eyed students returning to their lives in the Greater Boston Area with a deeper appreciation for the world, as well as the understanding that they left their mark on a country that is still recovering from tragedy.

New Worldview: Imagine deciding to play basketball on a Saturday afternoon, and then setting out on a five-mile hike over mountainous dirt roads to reach the only courts in the region.

That is the level of commitment required for the Rwandan youth to take advantage of the excellent facilities erected by Shooting Touch. These children aren’t just willing, they’re eager to make the trek to an outdoor court so that they can learn valuable skills from players, coaches, and fellows from America.

“A lot of the kids benefitted from the Shooting Touch programs,” observed Nobles junior Carolyn Feenan.“They seemed to feel privileged to be there and work with the coaches. Outside of those programs, the kids aren’t really educated on how to take care of themselves, so it was good to see that it’s impacting their lives.”

While the bulk of the program is spent engaging these children in team sports, there are designated breaks between the action during which the Rwandan youth are educated on nutrition, safe sex, and other important measures that can help ensure they lead lengthy and productive lives.

Shooting Touch co-founder Lindsey Kittredge explained, “The community that surrounds the [Rwandan] region in which we work has a very hard time mobilizing, but we were able to use basketball as a tool for health education to get them the knowledge that they need. It is about getting them the skills for higher education and developing their on-court ability, but more importantly, it’s about shaping their worldview and giving them a better chance for survival in an area that is depleted of resources that we might take for granted.”

At the same time, the players from Nobles were able to alter their own worldviews by observing and working alongside these underprivileged children.

Bulldogs captain and Gatorade Player of the Year Katie Benzan had never been outside the United States prior to this trip. She led her team to another NEPSAC title and became the second 2,000-point scorer in program history this season before greeting the challenges of a journey to Eastern Africa.

“I viewed the trip as an opportunity,” said Benzan. “I felt so fortunate to get another two weeks with my teammates and coach. The last couple weeks of the season were bittersweet, so it was really nice to be able to play basketball with my teammates and leave an impression on the community, but our team might have taken more out of that experience than [the Rwandans].”

Exemplary Success: Alex Gallagher took over the girls basketball team at Nobles as the head coach 15 years ago, and his program has served as the standard for success ever since.

The coach clarified, “Nobles basketball isn’t necessarily for everyone because we use 10 or 11 players in each game, and we value the 15th player as much as the first. The nature of the program has evolved a bit along with the game, and we’ve been blessed to attract a group of ‘basketball-first kids,’ who are really committed to our philosophy.”

Benzan, who will play basketball for Harvard University next fall, is the latest in a legacy of all-scholastic athletes that have led the Bulldogs during their historic run.

The senior admitted that this most recent championship “Was a little more special because it was my last chance. Even though the process wasn’t any different, because we all put in the effort, hard work, and the blood sweat and tears needed to win a championship, it was bittersweet for me because it was the end of something great.”

Thanks to the efforts of Benzan, senior captain Annie Blackburn, senior Camille Walter and many others, the Bulldogs bounced back from a couple of rare regular season losses to win the ISL, and they were able to avenge one of those losses with a 61-45 victory over Tabor Academy in the NEPSAC championship last month.

They’ve now secured five consecutive regional titles, which is even more impressive considering the fact that many NEPSAC schools include post-graduate players.

While his players are intently focused on their goals each season, the tenets of Gallagher’s program extend beyond their performance on the court. For example, the Bulldogs have played an exhibition game each year for the past decade against the Cotting School for children with special needs in Lexington, Mass.

“We play that game every year to be reminded that while we take basketball very seriously, it is still a game,” Gallagher asserted. “We try and keep it in perspective that there a lot bigger issues in the world than the huge game we have on Friday night. I believe that knowledge helps us to take a deep breath and relax when the pressure is on, and when the heat’s really on, we tend to be able to get the job done.”

Basketball as a Tool: Gallagher, who is also on the board of advisors for Shooting Touch, readily accepted the school’s proposition to allow members of the basketball team to sign up for a trip to Rwanda and work co-operatively with the non-profit.

While abroad, the Bulldogs assisted with the education of Rwandans and continued to develop their own understanding of how life is about much more than just basketball.

“Every day from 6 a.m. to 10:30 at night we were immersed in Rwandan culture,” explained Gallagher’s daughter Maya, who is a sophomore on the team. “We got to experience so many things and it was really interesting to see the kids that really hit the jackpot in places like ASYV as well as the kids who aren’t as fortunate.”

The players witnessed the dedication required for those children to play a game that we might take for granted in America. They were struck by the fact that most of the Rwandan children spent the entire day at the courts because they simply had nowhere else to be, which in turn made them reevaluate their own busy lives back home.

Equipment that American children take for granted such as socks, sneakers and even T-shirts were likened to treasure by the Rwandan youth, which created a powerful moment for Gallagher and his players.

“One night at a court, we brought about 30 hockey bags full of basketball gear and we had the opportunity to hand that stuff out to kids and adults who are involved in the program,” Gallagher recalled.

“It was almost a perfect moment to witness my players out on the court running drills while one of the five groups of [Rwandan] kids would go into the health center to receive their gear, and the image of these kids running out of the building with huge smiles on their faces as the sun set in their beautiful country is a moment I won’t forget.”

For many of the Bulldogs, the ability to share what they’ve learned from a basketball mastermind in Gallagher was an incredible opportunity. Yet more than knowledge of the game, they were able to disseminate basketball as a tight connection, which has been nearly as vital to their programs’ success over the years.

“One of the main focuses of our team is to become a family and always have each others’ backs. We have very little drama, and the family dynamic has always kept us on the right track,” said junior guard Addy Mitchell. “It was great to have basketball as a tool to communicate with the [Rwandan] kids and bond with them in that way.”

Bringing it Home: At the conclusion of their trip, the Bulldogs competed against an all-star team of Rwandan boys in Primary (ages 10 to 16) and Secondary (ages 16 to 19) schools.

Hundreds of locals lined the court to watch this anticipated showdown, many of which were women that fill somewhat diminished gender roles within their communities.

So, when a group of eight girls from Noble and Greenough high school took down a team of boys in a hard-fought, three-point win, Gallagher and the players felt as though they opened the eyes of many Rwandan women as far as what they can and can’t do.

“I hope we left something for them to thing about, especially the girls in the Rwandan villages that we interacted with,” Benzan said. “Girls are almost seen as inferior to guys, and the belief is that there’s no way girls can beat boys. It was great to be able to show them that girls can do anything. Girls can compete, and get any job they want. So hopefully we served as an example for them to look up to.”

Kittredge reinforced the idea that the Bulldogs victory might encourage Rwandan women to continue to come together over basketball.

She called the all-star game “the best example of the entire tournament because a lot of gender norms were shocked that day. In Rwanda, people aren’t used to seeing women play sports at any competitive level, but it can be a great activity, because a lot of these women are HIV positive or malnourished. When they get on the basketball court they have a sense of community and an outlet to exercise that they might not otherwise have.”

Those same principles recently inspired Kittredge and the other board members to create the “G3 Boston” initiative, which enrolls 75 female students from charter schools throughout Roxbury, Dorchester and Hyde Park.

While the program focuses on basketball, it also provides educational segments on nutrition and seeks to instill healthy habits for young women in urban areas that might not value those principles as much as they should.

While working abroad, Kittredge said “We realized that [basketball] is an excellent tool and we tried to think how we might foster that in our own backyard.”

She continued, “We decided that the best place to be impactful in Boston was with middle school age females in urban areas, because that demographic and age group doesn’t get equal opportunity to sports programming, which could make them more likely to stay on a healthy track. Whether they’re in Rwanda or Boston, it’s about making these children healthier on and off the court.”

A handful of the basketball players at Nobles have already gotten involved with the some of the G3 camps in the area, and some are eager to become more involved after their experience in Africa.

“It’s definitely nice that Shooting Touch has a Boston root. Hopefully we’re able to use what we learned in Rwanda and bring it home,” said Mitchell.

Gallagher expanded on the school’s involvement with the initiative going forward, and maintained, “There’s no doubt [Noble and Greenough] is going to have a connection with G3 when it begins again. At some point in the winter we hope to host the G3 kids on campus, and the objective will be similar to the overall motto of our trip [to Rwanda], which is to use basketball as a connecting point between groups. In the same way we acted as mentors and friends overseas, we hope to build the same type of relationship with kids in the G3 program.”

It’s often said that a student can learn more by travelling than they can in the classroom.

The basketball players at Nobles have learned so much under both circumstances, and that might serve as the true measuring stick for how successful they were during their high school careers.