Champions on and off the court

When I decided to start Hope4Girls, I asked myself what I wanted it to achieve. What would my impact be? I thought about growing up in the United States and all the programs outside of school that made my life what it is today: the YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Girl Scouts. I thought about the high school basketball team that was so instrumental in my development.

The opportunities such an array of programs provides are not so available in Nigeria, least of all in the disadvantaged areas where they are needed the most. Many youth organizations are so embedded in American culture, we take them for granted. My big dream is to have H4G attain that status here. Maybe if I reach it, someone can point back to this blog and say it was seen here first. If I don't, then someone can try to succeed where I failed.

In March 2010, I started an after-school program called the Princess Academy (before I was an athlete I wanted to be a princess. Thanks, Disney). With the help of Yolanda Griffith and others, 200 middle school girls spent four days experiencing their first basketball clinic. Yolanda was a great sport in helping jumpstart the program, but I knew I needed to build a team of young, committed, passionate people to help keep it alive when funding is very inconsistent.

Enter Iyabo Yussuf, the academy and program coordinator, and Peter Akindele and Dele Awonuga, the coaches. Together they run the academy, which continues to grow by leaps and bounds, making a positive impact in these girls' lives and the larger community. The goal is to partner with more schools around the state and foster an environment that instills the "Play, Learn, Grow" motto in multiple deprived communities.

Yet all the credit goes to the princesses themselves, who endured challenge after challenge and have shined through them all. I have watched their desire to learn and get better overcome Mother Nature with her extreme heat and the rainy season's random storms. They even demanded more practice -- five times a week instead of the original thrice weekly schedule. Many girls would practice with no shoes on the hot ground, while others made due with slippers. With help and donations from Seton Hall University, we were able to put shoes on all our girls' feet.

Today the girls are working harder than ever. They're learning that there is no shortcut to success, but whether or not they win on the court, the lessons they learn will help them to win in the game of life. After just one year, H4G is already sending a championship team to represent Lagos state in the regionals of the Milo finals this June.

This past month I was stuck at a boot camp in another state, but on April 14, I was able to visit the team before practice. I told them how proud of them I was, a bunch of girls who didn't even know what basketball was were now representing their school, Ajigbeda Girls Secondary School, in the biggest middle school tournament in the country.

Many people have asked what's in it for me. As the girls gathered around me before their practice, one said, "On behalf of all the girls, I want to thank you for making us feel like we are somebody." I thought to myself, "What more motivation do I need?"