Anti-smoking via sports

Program: A Columbia group is using basketball to teach teen-age boys leadership, self-esteem and responsibility.

February 18, 2002|By Betsy Diehl | Betsy Diehl,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Some say that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, but a local group believes that the way to a young man's mind - especially a teen-ager's - is through basketball.

The Baobab Tree Project Inc., a nonprofit organization in Columbia, has started a nine-week program designed for boys in eighth through 12th grades. It is a leadership program in the guise of an anti-tobacco program under the auspices of a basketball program. It might sound complex, but the components mesh and build on one another, said Peter Taiwo one of the group's founders.

"Basketball is just the hook to get this program going," Taiwo said.

The program focuses on leadership, mentoring and self-esteem, with a strong anti-tobacco theme. The teen participants have dubbed the series COURT - Creating an Organization of Unity and Responsible Thinking.

The Baobab Tree Project is seasoned in the arena of youth programs - it conducts school presentations and after-school programs in neighboring counties, including a similar anti-tobacco program in Montgomery County, said Anne DeLaVergne, chief executive officer and co-founder of the Baobab Tree Project. "Everything we do is centered around the same thing," she said, noting that this is the first time that a basketball court has served as the venue.

DeLaVergne and Taiwo formed Baobab in 1998. The two have been friends since crossing paths - literally - on a Columbia walking trail. "I was walking forward and he was running backwards," DeLaVergne said. "Peter, running backwards, has met so many people."

The idea for the Baobab Tree Project sprouted from casual conversations the pair had about growing up - she in America and he in Africa. "Talking to him about growing up was so different from what I knew," she said. "I said, `People here have to know about this.'"

Their organization is named for the baobab tree, a symbol in African folklore that is often associated with life, protection and longevity. The hearty trees, which Antoine de Saint-Exupery refers to in The Little Prince as "trees as big as castles," can provide shelter to families in the hollows of their enormous trunks.

"When we were starting this, we were thinking of something all-encompassing," Taiwo said. "That was the perfect analogy for what we set out to do."

The demographic of the target audience for COURT happens to match that of another successful youth program - the Columbia Association's Midnight Basketball League.

"It's easier to build on an existing program," Taiwo said. "We have a captive audience."

The Baobab Tree Project teamed up with the Columbia Association's Teen Center and Midnight Basketball organizers to develop the initiative and identify likely teen participants. Several Midnight Basketball coaches also serve as volunteers with COURT, DeLaVergne said.

Taiwo said the program, officially called Behind the Smokescreen: A Tobacco Use Awareness Education Initiative, is funded through a grant from the Howard County Health Department's Cigarette Restitution Fund, part of the money from the settlement between tobacco companies and 46 states, including Maryland and five U.S. territories.

While the anti-tobacco message is pivotal, the method of presentation and the themes encompass a much broader scope. "It's futile to have a program that is focused on an anti-tobacco message alone," Taiwo said. "The most effective programs are those that develop in the young person some kind of feeling: `What is my worth? What is my role?'"

Dylene Cymraes, facilitator for Baobab, agrees. "We're weaving the tobacco program in with the leadership program. It's leadership-development geared," she said. "But most kids won't come to a leadership program. [Basketball] was a great carrot to get them in."

The introductory session was Feb. 10 at the Columbia Gym in River Hill. Teens and adults shared a light supper and shot baskets before getting down to the business at hand - identifying goals and expectations for the coming weeks, which will include panel discussions, interviews and, of course, basketball.

After the nine workshops, each teen will earn the distinction of "youth ambassador," someone likely to influence his peers in a positive way.

Columbia resident Michelle Hahn has three basketball-playing sons, two of whom have joined COURT.

"Basketball got their attention, basketball got them here," she said of Cody, 16, and Chris, 13. "It's very positive."

The fundamental philosophy of COURT comes from Taiwo's upbringing in Nigeria, as a member of the Igbo tribe. "The program is modeled on a tribe concept, having faith in each other and watching out for each other," he said. "Technology alone cannot power us into the next generation."

The curriculum relies heavily on the notion of the "age group" - a formally defined set of tribe members whose ages lie within a five-year range, with the purpose of keeping each other in check.

"The age group is the social fabric that holds people together," Taiwo said. "People end up being each other's keepers."

As Benjamin Daniels, program manager for Midnight Basketball and a COURT volunteer, said: "There's always someone a little higher that you can take advice from. Hopefully, the younger older kids will listen to the older older kids. And, hopefully, the older older kids will listen to the adults."

One of those "older older kids" is 22-year-old Aaron Williams, a Midnight Basketball player for five years. "I'll try to be a mentor, someone they can talk to about different issues, not just tobacco," the Bowie State senior said. "I think it will make a difference."

The next COURT session is Sunday at the Columbia Gym in River Hill. Information about COURT: Baobab Tree Project Inc., 410-997- 1261, or send e-mail to baobab

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