Mark Crandall, who has for the past 18 years used sport — basketball, soccer, and chess — as a means through which to reach at-risk youngsters in southern Africa, has recently imported Hoops 4 Hope and Soccer 4 Hope’s model to the Inuits in Canada’s arctic region.
Though it’s far more isolated and colder (January’s average is minus 40) in the small Hudson Bay fishing village of Arviat, where the Amagansetter spent a week last month, than in Africa, “the first nation’s” children are no less subject to the temptations and painful consequences that attend modern society than their peers in Harare, Cape Town, or, for that matter, East Hampton.
Crandall and Hoops 4 Hope’s Canadian volunteer director, Rick Gill, a former professional basketball player from Vancouver, are engaged in a six-month pilot project in the territory of Nunavut, having been invited there following a televised report aired during the time of the World Cup that praised Soccer 4 Hope’s work with youngsters in Cape Town’s townships. That work led to a large grant from the German government, which Crandall used to great advantage, but he has yet, after all these years, to receive the day-in, day-out support that Hoops and Soccer 4 Hope need. The “accolades” have been many. Luol Deng, the Chicago Bulls Senegalese star, has given Hoops 4 Hope clinics in Cape Town, Gill’s Canadian wing has sent to southern Africa three huge shipping containers filled with thousands of sneakers, uniforms, and basketballs, at a cost of $10,000 each, a Hoops 4 Hope alum is playing professional basketball in Germany, three young peer educator-coaches recently participated in United Nations-run camps in Switzerland and Germany, and Crandall has been interviewed concerning his work by The Huffington Post. . . . Yet the sport-mentoring organization is always playing catch-up. “I’m known as the recycled sneaker guy,” the youth mentor said wryly, adding, “we’re still operating on a shoestring.”
The key, Crandall said, is to train a sufficient number of peer educator-coaches in Canada’s far reaches so that Hoops 4 Hope’s life skills curriculums aimed at developing young leaders may become “sustainable.” He has strong community backing in the some 140 Zimbabwean and South African schools and communities where Hoops 4 Hope and Soccer 4 Hope have taken hold and have touched the lives of 10,000 children, thanks largely to volunteer help, “but we don’t have enough basketballs, and we have to ration the sneakers we get. I’ve had a shipment of sneakers sitting here for three years because we don’t have the $10,000 to get them to Africa.” In contrast, the Canadian government has seen to it that there are plenty of basketballs in the sparsely populated arctic region’s schools, though the children, who are falling prey to modern society’s blandishments, tobacco, drugs, alcohol, and gambling among them, are sorely in need of social mentoring. The teen suicide rate there is very high. “There are life and death issues in Arviat, just as there are here and in southern Africa, that must be addressed.”
Crandall’s upbringing here set him on his vocational path. “I had Little League, Biddy basketball, and Dick Baker and Mr. [Jim] Stewart as mentors. Sports happen here because we have the physical-education teachers, the super dads, the fire departments, and all the equipment we need. I’ve taken this love of sports to where sports don’t just happen. It doesn’t just happen, because the first person you need is a coach, and a coach needs space, basketballs, soccer balls, equipment, uniforms, and a team needs a team to play against. Hoops 4 Hope and Soccer 4 Hope have been doing all of that, using sport as a way to educate children concerning life and death issues, about sex and H.I.V.-AIDS, drugs, and alcohol, but as soon as it’s turned off, it won’t happen. It needs to be sustainable, programs like ours need to grow from the bottom up, not from the top down.”
“First and foremost, I’m an athlete,” Crandall continued. “But I studied sociology, and developed a way to solve social problems through sports. ‘Development through sport’ is our motto. Going to the arctic has helped me press ‘reset,’ in a way, and to realize how powerful this model is and how needed it is, not only in the developing world, but in East Hampton too.”
Arviat, he said, in answer to a question, was a village of about 3,000 on the western side of Hudson Bay, about 1,000 miles north of Winnipeg. “Until not long ago, the Inuits were a nomadic people with a beautiful culture, but the Western lifestyle has intruded. You can’t fault fourth graders for becoming addicted to tobacco — chewing tobacco comes in vanilla and cherry flavors — when tobacco use is harder to quit than heroin. Theirs is a pure genetic line, and they are just as allergic to alcohol as to tobacco. There’s no H.I.V.-AIDS there . . . yet; the world’s become a very small place. One hundred and 12 babies were born there last year, a high number. Babies are having babies, kids drop out of school, and there are not many jobs. . . . It’s a very complex social situation, they’re isolated, and the communities are very far apart.”
“You’ve got to start with the kids and give them ways to understand why things are happening the way they are so they can make informed decisions. Why is a 12-year-old driven to try to commit suicide with a shoestring? Why does he get to that point? We want to create a place so that he knows he’s not alone in the world. You need to talk about these traumatic situations and why they happen — in East Hampton and Cape Town and Harare as well as in Arviat.”
“There are highly educated, incentivized ‘southerners,’ teachers from the Canadian provinces who are trying to solve these social problems, but there’s a linguistic wall, and sometimes these teachers leave. That’s why we were invited to come up. Our primary job during this six-month pilot project is to train young peer educators, the role models who will carry on the work, who will not only teach kids athletic skills, but who will also facilitate discussions that others are not having with them, create trust, and give positive feedback so that when these middle schoolers get into the game — when they’ve got to make decisions concerning alcohol, sex, and other issues — they’ll make prudent ones. . . . When you jump out of a plane, you want to be sure you’ve buckled up.”