By itself, a basketball is little more than an inflatable rubber bladder, wrapped in fibers and covered in leather to be bounced, passed, shot or dunked into an 18-inch-diameter hoop.
But in the hands of a disadvantaged kid, a basketball can be much more.
That was the thought behind Hillside Connection, a nonprofit organization that uses basketball to teach important life skills and create pathways for underprivileged kids in southern Colorado Springs.
The son of a youth coach, Brown credits his connection to the game for keeping him out of trouble throughout his childhood.
“A lot of the kids we serve, they’re definitely at risk,” Brown said. “So they need this holistic approach dearly. Sometimes they are one or two days of not having food away from making a wrong decision that will impact their whole lives. So sport and basketball are a safe haven for these kids … This round object can definitely change the trajectory of their lives.”
Hillside Connection currently offers a variety of programs for young boys ages 5-13, including basketball camps, clinics, a summer recreation league and traveling competitive teams — and starting this winter, the organization will start providing similar programs for girls, beginning with a winter basketball clinic for first-through-fourth graders.
As a former high school standout who eventually played basketball in college, Brown has long been able to do special things with the ball in his hands. He knows that not every kid who participates in one of Hillside Connection’s clinics, camps, open gyms, or other programs will go on to play college ball like he did, and that the chances of them playing professionally are overwhelmingly slim.
But Brown still encourages those dreams while teaching valuable life skills like persistence, resiliency and teamwork, and providing additional opportunities completely separate from the game.
Kids who faithfully attend Hillside Connection programs may also get to take part in enrichment trips to places like the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center and Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.
“A lot of kids that we serve, they are what they see,” Brown said. “So a lot of them are infatuated with the thought of being a basketball player or football star, but they don’t necessarily know that … there’s percentages. Everybody is not going to be able to live out that dream. And we’re not in the business of shackling these young men’s dreams, because I was a dreamer too. But it’s about developing that holistic approach to make them say, ‘Dang, the Fine Arts Center is kind of cool. Maybe I have an identity in that arena as well.’”
Since its inception in 2017, Hillside Connection has tried to make the most of its meager funding, primarily donations from corporate sponsors.
With a current operating budget less than $20,000, Brown said his hope for the future is to secure enough funding to position the organization for long-term viability and offer additional programming.
“The ultimate goal is to create something sustainable,” he said, “and that takes staffing and the right finances and resources to potentially employ staff. I feel as if we’re adding a lot of value to the community, and I’m a firm believer that if you’re doing stuff from the heart and continuing to add value, you’re going to get return on that.
“We just need as much community support as we can get from as many folks as we can have. Because it takes a village, from all fronts. The local kids, the schools, the city, it’s going to take everybody contributing for us to live up to the possibilities.”
Editor’s note: This is the first in a weekly series running through December highlighting nonprofit agencies and their programs that are part of the Give! Campaign. For more information, go to indygive.com.