Slam dunk for underprivileged kids

In the fading afternoon sun, a young man stands on a basketball court with four young children excitedly running around him.

Minutes pass and the four children multiply until more than 30 are bouncing around his ankles with endless energy, seemingly immune to the day’s freezing conditions.

The man unzips the bag at his feet, pulls out a basketball and says: “Okay guys it’s time to start! Split up into two groups and form a line at half court.”

The children sprint off down the court and the young man draws an old silver whistle to his mouth.

His name is Steve Bacash, the head coach at Helping Hoops Richmond.

He gives his whistle a soft toot capturing the children’s attention and yells “okay guys let’s start off with a little warm up, give me two suicides!”

Helping Hoops is a charity dedicated to running free basketball programs for underprivileged children.

What started in 2009 as a single program in Footscray now delivers more than 450 free basketball sessions to more than 1000 children of all abilities, ages 7 to 21.

Participants at Richmond Helping Hoops. Photo: Joseph Regan

Steve first became interested in helping underprivileged youths while volunteering with The Big Issue.

“I was helping out with a street soccer program, which I had heard about through my days playing street basketball in high school, but felt like I couldn’t really help the kids out because I never played soccer.”

“So, when I heard about the opportunity to actually coach basketball and teach kids a sport that I knew the fundamentals in, I jumped at the chance.”

Steve started volunteering in 2013 and was promoted to head coach in 2015.

“I first started volunteering with Helping Hoops six years ago and then two years ago an opportunity came up to coach but our executive director Adam McKay was a bit reluctant to give me the role.”

“He said that he thought I would always be a bit more of a sidekick and that burned in my soul a little bit. However, I didn’t show it and I knew I had more to give.”

“They ended up giving the role to another African American dude with a lot of experience, but about six months later that didn’t work out so they gave me the job.”

“Two years on and I’m now doing four programs in Richmond, Croxton, Prahran and North Melbourne teaching the fundamentals of basketball to more than 150 kids a week.”

Steve is an easy going character and this relaxed, happy-go-lucky approach clearly comes through in the clinics with the focus on the kids having a good time rather than driving the technical development of basketball skills.

“At Helping Hoops we’re not here to turn these kids into champion basketballers, we’re here to create a feeling of community and instil values like teamwork, respect and interpersonal skills.”

“I layer the program because if it’s all basketball most of the kids won’t stay interested.”

“I try to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable to speak and be heard because a lot of these kids come from challenging families so I think it’s important to give them a space where they feel they have a voice.”

The energy and excitement on court is palpable, it’s clear the kids respond well to Steve’s approach as he orchestrates the mayhem with carefully timed bursts of his whistle.

Long-time Richmond Helping Hoops volunteer Meredith Oldhan says that Steve is an excellent mentor for the children.

“He’s a bit of a king of the kids when they are all out on court.”

“Tonight is a perfect example, we’re getting buffeted by freezing gusts, pelted with ice cold rain and it’s the first day back for lots of schools and there’s still at least 35 kids down here to shoot some hoops!”

“Steve thrives in this organised chaos and the smiles he puts on the kids’ faces at the end of each session always make it completely worthwhile,” says Meredith.

Helping Hoops executive director Adam McKay said that the work Steve does running four training sessions each week is invaluable.

“Each week Steve runs four different programs Wednesday to Saturday spread out across Richmond, North Melbourne, Prahran and Croxton, and at every one of the programs he knows every kids name and takes a genuine interest in who they are as people.”

“It’s only through the generosity of our dedicated coaches like Steve that we are able to reach as many people as we do.”

For Steve, it doesn’t feel like work anymore.

“Initially I found it difficult because you have to give so much of yourself and it can be difficult working out what kind of person these kids need you to be.”

“But after a while, you reach this level where you understand what you’re here to do and that’s when you really start to pick up on how rewarding [it is] working with these kids and watching them grow and develop into young adults.”

“At the end of the day these are great kids who just like anyone else need to be guided, nurtured and supported, and it’s an amazing feeling to be able to provide that to some of these kids.”

Helping Hoops is a not for profit orginisation dedicated to helping underprivileged children achieve their full potential through competitive sport.

More information on Helping Hoops can be found here.

Written by Joseph Regan

Neighbourhood watcher: Judy Ryan’s war on drugs

From the moment you meet Judy Ryan her passion for the neighbourhood she fondly refers to as ‘my village’ is impossible to ignore. “I just love this grungy area; I love walking out of my front gate and going ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen today.'”

As it turns out, this love of spontaneity has proved a valuable asset for Judy’s involvement with her neighbourhood and has led her to become one of its most valued members.

The seventh of eight children and hailing from Wangaratta, Judy is driven by a need to feel connected to those around her.

Warm and bubbly, it’s not hard to feel connected to her. “I just love knowing people,” she says with a shrug.

“Having lived in the country, I was very involved in the community … my parents were very involved – we’ve always had a sense of getting your energy from the community.”

So when Judy and her husband John settled in Abbotsford five years ago, the first thing she did was seek out a place for herself in her new neighbourhood.

“One of the things I wanted to do was create community for myself.”

She began by volunteering as a mentor with Yarra Community Friends. Then there was a stint in the Abbotsford Convent’s choir. But Judy’s greatest act of community involvement began last year in July 2016.

It was a typical Melbourne Sunday she says; cool but clear, not a cloud in the sky. Judy was on her way out and in the laneway behind her home, a young man lay overdosed on the concrete.

This has become so common that Judy is often afraid to leave her home – not out of concern for her own safety, but for the wellbeing of those she refers to as her ‘regulars’: the individuals using her laneway as their own injecting facility.

Upon leaving to meet me, she explains, there was someone using her laneway to inject. She has become so involved in the lives of addicts her GP has advised her to be vaccinated against hepatitis.

Judy’s work has brought her into close contact with victims of drug abuse and their families. Photo’s: Judy Ryan

Not one to be passive, Judy reached out to her council and after failing to get results, decided to run herself as a single-issue candidate. She received more than 600 primary votes, putting her on the map and on top of various organisations’ contact lists.

After being inundated with emails from interest groups across the Yarra, she noticed one from Victoria Street Drug Solutions.

Judy picked up the phone and arranged to meet them the next day, and became involved instantly. Her first order of business was to instil her community values into the organisation, which she did by changing the name.

Judy is now secretary of Residents for Victoria Street Drug Solutions (RVSDS) – a community-led initiative campaigning for the introduction of a supervised injecting facility into the community.

After touring Sydney’s Kings Cross injecting facility, Judy decided “I want one of these in my backyard” and began the push along with RVSDS’s other members: “I just felt the residents didn’t have a voice”.

RVSDS has become that voice and Judy is its loudest member. “We often call Judy the Erin Brockovich of North Richmond. She’s really helped bring a spotlight to what is going on here,” says Penny Francis of North Richmond Community Health.

“She is genuine, generous and has true community spirit – around her kitchen table strangers become friends,” says Kylie Troy-West, one of Judy’s fellow RVSDS members. “There’s that sense of dedication to her community and the drive to act in their benefit.”

When our conversation turns to the addicts there’s no bitterness or judgement, only maternal concern, and an empathy coming from personal experience. Having lost two nephews to heroin addiction, Judy is no stranger to the suffering families affected by drug abuse. She believes, if they had had access to a supervised injecting facility they would have been saved.

After our meeting, Judy takes me on a walk around her neighbourhood; we visit local injecting and dealing hotspots. It’s a tour Judy has conducted many times with various politicians and journalists to highlight the need for injecting facilities, “I like people coming out to see for themselves,” she says.

“Education is key,” she tells me, and the streets speak for themselves. Stepping into one commonly frequented car park, we witness someone shooting up. Syringes and cotton swabs litter the ground.

“Imagine overdosing in a place like this,” Judy reflects as we stand in the falling rain, among piles of rubbish and muddy puddles. But she’s optimistic RVSDS’s efforts will end that possibility: “I’m so full of hope,” she tells me.

Judy doesn’t want recognition or credit for her efforts, but her dedication shouldn’t go unrecognised. Since becoming involved Judy has put her life on hold.

She still works three days a week at a school in Brighton, but it’s clear her work with RVSDS is her true passion, and she is determined to see her project through, “mum would say ‘you should never die wondering'”.

It’s clear that though Judy may be keen to return to her everyday life, she has no plans of quietening down until she’s achieved a better environment for all of her village.

Residents of Victoria Street Drug Solutions will hold their inaugural March to Stay Alive on August 27 in anticipation of International Overdose Awareness Day to raise awareness and funds.

To become involved or find out more about RVSDS visit its website or Facebook page.

Written by Alice Wilson

 

Hana Assafiri: fighting hostility through social justice

Hana Assafiri, founder of Speed Date a Muslim, is building bridges through social justice platforms.

Speed Date a Muslim is Hana Assafiri’s way of responding to the hostility of social injustice. Her platforms and forums are built on the “principle of social justice and practical application, enabling, employing and empowering women,” she says.

Hana Assafiri was born in Melbourne and relocated to Morocco when she was four. She then went to Lebanon, her mother’s home country.

“Are you of Moroccan background?” I ask her.

“I am somebody who dances around categories,” she responds.

Assafiri doesn’t appreciate it when people “put you in a box. I am mindful and aware [however] I reject all categories.”

“My heritage is Moroccan,” she eventually says, explaining that her mum is a mix of Lebanese and Syrian heritage.

“We are a hybrid.”

At the age of 12, she came back to Melbourne with her family. Leaving Lebanon for Australia in her teenage years was difficult, but it was unavoidable due to the outbreak of the civil war.

When asked how it was growing up with an ethnic back ground, she replies, “I felt the difference [growing up], it can be cruel.”

“[Getting] made fun of [as a kid] and what makes you different became something you get teased about.”

Assafiri had difficulty speaking English as a teenager so she stopped speaking at school.

“My teacher thought I was mute,” she says with a smile.

Not wanting to be made fun of and be targeted by other kids at school, Assafiri would go home and practice English in the mirror.

“When we learn English like that [it is easy] to impersonate,” she expresses.

Assafiri explains that the hostility or racism coming from children is almost innocent and “now fast forward, that hostility is inside the system,” she says poking fun at the differences.

“[We have a] Prime Minister speaking about multi-culture diversely,” she says.

Her forum, Speed Date a Muslim is a way of responding to the hostility.

“This is a social justice platform.”

Assafiri’s day is busy left, right and centre, filled with work at two places all week. In addition to releasing a cookbook, she is the owner of the Moroccan Soup Bar in North Fitzroy and the Moroccan Deli-Cacy in Brunswick.

Photo: Zathia Bazeer

Speed Date a Muslim has been operating for the past year and allows Muslims and non-Muslims to have a chat with each other and break down barriers.

Assafiri stresses the importance of being aware of what is going on in the community, whether it’s social or political hostility.

“We became aware of the hostility and plurality [and so] our strategy is unconventional. Offering an opportunity to engage with [Muslims at] Speed Date a Muslim.”

Assafiri explains that the platform is not a chance for people to speak on Islamophobia, but instead a space for conversation, to talk out our differences and learn about each other. Speed Date a Muslim allows people of a community to be humanised when it has been separated and made to feel scared by the media or government.

“Women find empowerment inside Islam,” she says and this is a chance for everyone to speak on common ground. Speed Date a Muslim is a place where women can feel safe – and strong.

Assafiri has found purpose and meaning based in her platforms and events of social justice.

“Each person has something to do, some discover [their purpose] earlier. For me, my thing is social justice, [that is where] I find life’s meaning.”

When asked why that was her answer, “the why is … is [because] it is inevitable [but it’s] where I find passion and meaning,” she responds.

Written by Zathia Bazeer.