For 'Hoop Dreams' scholars, quitting is the only unavailable option

The work of one woman has helped more than 800 inner-city youths better themselves through mentoring, tutoring, and scholarships.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

On a rainy Saturday in late September at the University of Maryland campus, dozens of high school seniors begin a yearlong journey – one that they hope will help turn them into college students.

The theme of the day is stepping out into the unknown, and in more ways than one, each student is venturing outside his or her comfort zone. The 82 African-Americans came from Washington, D.C., and have been chosen to participate in Hoop Dreams, a yearlong college-prep, internship, and mentoring program.

Today's full-day orientation includes team-building activities using a climbing wall and a ropes course, as well as discussions about goals, taking risks, and overcoming obstacles. Susie Kay, founder of the Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund, stands up and tells the students, flat out, what they can and can't do this year:

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"You can get scared," she says. "You can get tired. You can lean on each other, support each other, confide in each other. Go to your mentors, family members, and teachers, The only thing you can't do is quit."

The students seem captivated by Ms. Kay's energy. They have committed to attend workshops with their soon-to-be-assigned mentors every Saturday and meet with them two additional times a month until graduation. During the year, they will also participate in writing workshops, math tutoring sessions, SAT prep work, and an internship that typically lasts throughout the school year.

Since the nonprofit was founded 10 years ago, 800 students have been through the program. The scholarships offered by Hoop Dreams – which is funded by foundations, corporations, and individual donors – are actually the smallest part of the program and usually range from $1,000 to $5,000. But the organization works with students to obtain additional funding from other scholarship sources. Those sources often significantly offset or fully cover a student's tuition bill, Kay says.

Unlike some scholarship programs, Hoop Dreams does not measure success by the number of college diplomas. Her students still face challenges that don't go away just because they have enrolled in college, Kay explains. "We've had students end up homeless; we've had students end up in jail, and most of them will take five to eight years to graduate," she says.

Individual attention key

For Kay, success means helping one student at a time and ensuring that there is a place for them to go for support, no matter what stage they are at. "Money will only take you so far." she says. "It doesn't matter if they don't have the support system."

Chymaria Ball, a sophomore at Temple University in Philadelphia, completed the Hoop Dreams program in the spring of 2005. The valedictorian of her high school class, she credits the organization for the backing and encouragement she receives today. "Ms. Kay taught us how to utilize people around us in the community," says Ms. Ball. "You need that support system when your financial aid goes wrong."

Ball says she still keeps in touch with her mentors, a married couple who works for consulting firms KPMG and BearingPoint. "Hoop Dreams helped me become patient," Ball says, "and helped me transition to life in college."

Leon Morgan, a sophomore and hotel and restaurant management major at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, also graduated from high school in 2005. He returned to Hoop Dreams for help finding two of the three jobs he held last summer. "I want to be a chef," says Mr. Morgan. "So Hoop Dreams made some calls and helped me get a job as a prep cook."

He was also hired by a Washington hotel restaurant, thanks to a contact made by his mentor, Jeffrey Johnson, an entrepreneur who also bought him his first uniforms and chef's knives.

Morgan says a lot of his friends are in jail or still hanging out in the same place they did when they were 12. Although it was difficult to give up Saturdays during his senior year to attend mentoring sessions, he says it was well worth it. Since graduation, he has returned to talk to new seniors in the program about college life.

Networking as an art

Kay says she never had a master plan to make Hoop Dreams what it is today. More or less, she made it happen as she went along. The program grew out of work that Kay did while teaching American government at the city's H.D. Woodson High School in 1990. Trying to build a bridge between students at an all-African- American school and her acquaintances on Capitol Hill (from her time working as a legislative assistant), she would have Hill staffers visit and talk to her classes.

Kay soon found that students had a lot of questions for her about why white people behaved in certain ways. Then she started asking her own questions, wondering about race, economic empowerment, and the divide between this school and the predominantly white side of Washington, just a few miles away. Kay used her teaching and networking skills to try to bring people together.

One of these connections was with Ari Fleischer, President Bush's former press secretary. When Kay was teaching, she asked Mr. Fleischer (before he was hired by the White House) to talk to her students.

"I might disagree with his politics, but he's a good friend of mine, and I felt compelled to connect the kids to every resource I had in my life," Kay says.

In 1995, Fleischer wrote a personal check to pay for a student's college books. The seed was planted. From that moment on, Kay decided she would ask everyone she knew for help.

Basketball roots

Around that time she saw "Hoop Dreams," a documentary that chronicled the lives of two inner-city African-American young men who struggle to become professional basketball players. Kay was so impressed with the film that she decided to put on a three-on-three basketball tournament in 1996 to raise scholarship money. It raised $4,000. She thought it would be a one-time, one-day event. But Kay says momentum – and her drive to make a difference – pushed the program along until it turned into a formal nonprofit and a recognized youth services program.

As George Newstrom, president of Lee Technologies and Virginia's former secretary of Technology, learned, it's hard to ignore Kay's passion. He became Hoop Dreams' first major sponsor after he heard Kay on a radio talk show nearly a decade ago. "She captivated me in about 30 seconds when it was impossible to do," Mr. Newstrom says, "because it was 6:30 Sunday morning, and I hate talk shows."

The next day, he called Kay about helping to fund the program with $10,000. Newstrom's company at the time, EDS, became the organization's founding sponsor with a donation of cash and office space. It continues to support Hoop Dreams with $50,000 annually. "One person can make a difference, and she's doing it," he says. "I don't know how tall she is, but there's so much energy in that little package."

Today, Kay has to raise $1.5 million a year just to keep Hoop Dreams alive – to pay her staff of eight, fund the scholarships, and support the organization's programs. While she feels pressure to take the program nationwide or expand it to other schools in the area, she knows there is a fragility to the relationships that would make it difficult to replicate. "It requires trust and sensitivity," Kay says. "This is not the kind of effort you can dilute."

Everyone in Kay's life is involved in Hoop Dreams at some level. Some of her friends are mentors, others are donors. Lines are so blurred between her personal and professional lives that boyfriends have become volunteers and her social activities often involve students. "Anything in my life," she says, "I connect to the kids."

While having no "separation of church and state," as she puts it, has been exhausting, Kay says she feels that she can never shirk the responsibility of keeping the organization alive and growing. "Most people don't always finish what they start," she told her new group of Hoop Dreams participants earlier this year. "It's so much easier to quit. But that's exactly why we can't."

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