Catchings gives kids hope, place to fit in

Tamika Catchings wasn't used to sitting still.

But an ACL injury that cut her All-American college career short also sidelined her for her first WNBA season, just after being drafted No. 3 overall by Indiana in 2001.

So Catchings went to the Fever's community relations department and begged them for something to do.

"I didn't want to be sitting around doing nothing," Catchings says. "I told them, 'Whatever you have, put me in there.'"

During her first event in 2001, a basketball clinic at a local family center, the club manager made a life-altering suggestion after watching the former University of Tennessee star work with the kids.

"He said, 'You should think about doing your own camp,'" Catchings said.

And so began the road to the Catch The Stars Foundation, which is celebrating its 10th year this summer, and has become a staple among youth outreach programs in Indianapolis.

Catch The Stars is a wide-ranging youth program serving underprivileged kids ages 7 through 16. The foundation offers 12 programs, including basketball camps, fitness clinics and mentoring and literacy programs. Tamika and her sister Tauja Catchings -- the daughters of former NBA player Harvey Catchings -- are hands-on founders.

"Tamika is always in the mix," says Cassandra Shelby, who runs a local community center, works with Catchings, and whose 14-year-old daughter Miah has been a part of the program since she was 6. "The great thing with Tamika is the time she takes with people. She didn't have to pull my daughter aside to mentor her, but she did. She told Miah that she can talk to her anytime, and she didn't have to do that. I just appreciate that she takes the time."

Cassandra Shelby first met Catchings at a Fever game more than a decade ago. She came to the game as a fan and was waiting afterward for an autograph. Catchings and Shelby got to talking about the community work that Shelby was doing.

"I told her that I did work with the juvenile court and I'd love for her to come down and talk to the kids, and she did," Shelby says. "I started volunteering for her and we've had a partnership and a friendship ever since."

Shelby adds that Catch The Stars is "very valuable in the community," especially in an area of the city with high poverty and crime rates.

"She comes in and shows the positive side of working hard," says Shelby. "She talks about her own personal struggles and how hard work got her where she is. She shows them that you don't have to turn to crime or other negative things. She shows the kids the positive side of life, and they respond to her."

Catchings' own story of struggling to fit in is well-known. Born with a hearing impairment that required her to wear hearing aids as a young girl, Catchings threw herself into basketball.

She has tried to create a place for kids where they feel like they fit in as well. Some of the kids she serves, Catchings says, come from very difficult home environments. She recalls hearing some of the 12-year-olds who participate in her camps share experiences that are difficult to comprehend.

"It's scary sometimes to hear these kids' stories," Catchings says, "but we want to tell them that while it's bad now, they have hope for their future."

Catchings ran her first camp over the Christmas holidays in 2001, as she continued to recover from her knee injury.

"The parents were so happy to get the kids out of the house, and they had a great time, and people were coming up to me asking, 'What else do you do?'" she says "The next year we ran a fitness camp and parents wanted to know, 'What else?' And I thought, 'OK, I have to come up with something else.'"

Because Catch The Stars has always been a reflection of her vision, Catchings has passed on opportunities to partner with another athlete or organization. "I want to help kids. This is not about making money; it's about helping them excel and succeed." She's particularly proud of the work being done in her teen mentorship programs. Court Stars, for girls ages 12 through 16, and Court Champs, for boys 12-16, are six-week programs that aim to give the participants life guidance and inspiration.

"These kids get loved on by our instructors; they get nothing but positive words, which is something they might not be getting elsewhere in their lives," Catchings said. "They might not be getting it at home or at school, and I feel like we are giving them hope for their future."

Shelby has seen her own daughter blossom under Catchings' mentorship.

"[Miah] has confidence now," Shelby said. "For a while, she didn't talk, and now she's more comfortable speaking. And she's learned that nobody is going to give her anything, that everything she needs or wants, she's going to have to work for. She has her own goals and I'm seeing her change every year."

Catchings' mentoring programs have waiting lists to get in, and her camps have blossomed to more than 250 kids at a time. Her back-to-school backpack donation program, which began in 2006 with rounding up about 200 backpacks, now collects nearly 850 to give to schoolchildren.

"A lot of the participation we get is from word of mouth," Catchings says. "We don't have a big marketing budget, so for us to have this kind of success, without having to go out and sell it, is a blessing."

Fever coach Lin Dunn -- who won a WNBA title with Catchings in 2012 and has been on the sidelines for 44 seasons -- said the eight-time All-Star's volunteer efforts match her trademark on-court passion.

"Off the court," Dunn recently wrote in an article on espnW.com, "she gives back to her fans and her community more than any athlete I have ever coached."

Catchings is very proud of what she has built in the past 10 years. And she's as active in the day-to-day as she was at the start.

"It takes time, and it can be tiring," she says. "Literally sometimes after practice, the only thing I want to do is lay down. And I walk into the gym and see the smiles on their faces and the joy and excitement, and that supersedes all of the tired. It just takes all of it away. I get to spend time with the kids, and that's all that really matters."

For more on Catch The Stars, visit the foundation's website.