Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, high school junior Sean Tavis learned on social media that a basketball coach in Latvia was hosting 90 Ukrainian players, ages 12 to 17, at his basketball academy. Other international efforts have helped Ukrainian youths escape the war: orphans to Poland and beyond, young cancer patients to Britain and the United States, and members of the Youth Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine now playing in Slovenia.
But the basketball effort hit home for Sean because the coach, Janis Butans, had been his coach when he was growing up in Latvia. So he dreamed up the idea of holding a basketball tournament and fundraiser with his teammates in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
The response from his high school was enthusiastic, but it took weeks to find a time, given the near-constant use of the gym. Meanwhile, Sean set up a GoFundMe page, and his parents alerted members of their church community, which swung into action. One churchgoer went door to door with flyers publicizing the effort and contacted a friend, who convinced wholesaler Bordan Shoe Co. in Los Angeles to send 150 pairs of new basketball shoes to the Ukrainians. Another churchgoer helped secure low-cost transportation to get the shoes from the U.S. to Latvia.
The money from the U.S. has gone toward entrance fees and transportation to basketball tournaments, which help keep the boys’ minds off the war. “Every person is different,” says Coach Butans. “One guy’s smiling all the time, but probably he’s hiding something. Sometimes, there is a person who can directly show you that something is not going well back home.”
By the time the high school fundraiser took place last month, “it was more of a celebration,” Sean says. The effort had already raised more than $10,000 worth of donated equipment and $9,924 in cash. At the end of the championship game, Sean’s team captain gave him a big hug and handed him a $100 bill of his own money, pushing donations over the $10,000 mark.
Says Sean, “People like myself and my friends can make a really big difference.”