See You on the Court! Using pickup basketball to build trust

When the Salvation Army’s New Day Center opened its doors last July, no one imagined how important games of pickup basketball would become.

The Salvation Army founded the New Day Center as a drop-in center for young adults aging out of the foster care system, experiencing homelessness, or at risk of sex trafficking. It’s there that some of the most vulnerable young people in the Roanoke Valley are able to eat a hot meal, take a shower, do laundry, and connect to resources to help them set and meet their goals.

Melissa Gish, the New Day Center program manager, says that when the center opened in July, the Salvation Army had hoped to serve 13 people in the first year—they ended up serving 154. Almost everyone served by the center so far has had some type of criminal justice involvement.

For young adults trying to gain a foothold out in the world, the years from 18 to 24 are critical. Trying to accomplish goals relies as much on stability as it does on skill. Finding a job takes persistence, employable skills, and a bit of luck; keeping that job requires a lot more emotional and social stability, which means addressing underlying barriers as directly and comprehensively as possible. The New Day Center provides stability, while our Young Adult Life Enhancement (Y.A.L.E.) program provides a pathway for justice-involved young adults to find and keep good jobs.

On the surface, Y.A.L.E. and New Day Center exist to address radically different problems. In reality, the problems are intertwined. While addressing underlying barriers can seem straightforward, doing so requires that both programs have a deep understanding of the nature that trauma plays in human development and emphasize the practice of meeting each client where they are, both physically and emotionally. And sometimes, meeting clients where they are requires some creativity.

On Fridays, Y.A.L.E. staff use their lunch break to drive the five minutes down the road to the New Day Center where they use the Center’s gym to play pickup basketball with whoever wants to join. The no-pressure interaction for New Day Center participants has resulted in about 20 new Y.A.L.E. participants so far.

“We help them set job goals, family and relationship goals, educational goals,” explained Y.A.L.E. Program Coordinator Randy Russell, noting that they make goals along varying intervals from 30–60 days, to six months, to a year, and beyond. Y.A.L.E.’s long-term focus also involves helping rewrite the negative narratives that clients sometimes cultivate about themselves, guiding them toward understanding what causes them to lose their temper, how they can overcome distractions, and how their biggest life goals can be broken down into a series of small steps.

For Melissa, success looks like her clients “consistently showing up because they trust us, and they’re safe.” There’s no doubt that the basketball-based outreach is an embodiment of both. And the ability to build trust with responsive and face-to-face interactions is what helps make it possible for clients to go from facing homelessness to being ready to focus on their careers in such a short span of time.

Find out more about our Youth Employment programs here.