It’s 3pm. My foot has a blister, my finger is cut, and I’m sunburnt. I’m also dehydrated, hoarse from yelling and hobbling like an old woman, after falling off a bouncy castle and onto my back. In normal circumstances, I’d be bad-tempered, exhausted and overwhelmed. Instead, I’ve an enormous grin on my face and I’ll wager that it’ll be there for the rest of the evening, and even into the weekend.
I’ve just spent a day volunteering with “Hoops for Kids” - a non-profit group that, today, threw it’s first national event, in Tel Aviv. Partnering with the city council, professional basketball players and volunteers from all over Israel’s centre, it brought over 600 kids from ‘at risk’ families to Park Hayarkon’s ‘Sportek’ area, for an event few of them are likely to forget any time soon.
Israel has a reputation for being a prosperous country (certainly by Middle Eastern standards, and often by Western ones) but the hard truth is there are lot of kids here ‘going without.’ It could be an absent parent, nutritional food, a birthday gift, or even a fun day out in the school break - many of these kids don’t have the easiest starts in life. Domestic violence, drugs and poverty often blight their neighbourhoods and, as their teachers tell me, few of them come from anything that resembles a stable home environment.
“Hoops for Kids” was founded with all this in mind. Focusing on sport (particularly basketball, which is beloved by most Israeli children) it organises not just one-off events but on-going programmes, in the form of after-school clubs. And, of course, it’s about far more than shooting hoops - the kids there are supported and encouraged by adults who mentor them and do all they can to stop them ‘falling through the cracks’ as a result of their less-than-ideal home conditions.
Jessica Traub and Rachel Banks are two of the brainchildren behind the outfit. Both married to professional basketball players from the US, they’ve used their know-how and long list of personal connections to persuade not just American but Israeli pros to volunteer their time with the project. Which is why, at today’s event, I’m hearing not just Hebrew but American English - and watching lots of tall, handsome dudes teaching kids to dribble, run and shoot…on an unseasonably warm April day.
The kids seem to love it though…and over the course of three hours rotate from one activity to another. After basketball there’s lacrosse, then football (or soccer as the Yanks call it!), followed by banner-painting, bouncy castles and face-painting. And, least I forget, volunteers are running popcorn and candy floss stands (which are, of course, an enormous hit). I’m astonished at how touched I feel, watching the kids’ faces as they marvel at the machine whirring the floss around the sticks, before it’s handed to them.
A small kid, constantly pushed to the back of the queue, is close to tears…so I push forward and grab one for her. She looks at me gratefully and moves towards me - I give her a hug. There’s a lump in my throat and I feel my heart swell.
Not that it’s all a bed of roses. Keeping an eye on the bouncy castle is tough even for a tough gal like me - kids jostling to jump on and, once on, reluctant to get off to make way for the next batch. I find myself going head to head with one boy, who’s been bashing everyone around for several minutes and refusing to get down. I’m telling him firmly, in Hebrew, that his time’s up and stares at me, determinedly, almost as if to say, “Make me.”
“OK Buster” I think to myself. “You’ve picked the wrong battle today.” I’m raising my voice now - telling him that if he doesn’t obey me, I’m going to come and get him personally. This, of course, he sees as an ultimatum. But I’m not standing down now. I scramble on and as he sees me coming in his direction, he runs forward to dodge me, accidentally tripping me up. We both fall backwards, off the bouncy castle, and onto the grass. He's only 11, and can take the tumble easier than I can. Immediately, I know I’m going to be bruised tonight. But before I can yell, he and a few other kids are gathered around me, anxiously asking me if I’m ok. How can I be angry? One pulls me to my feet and we all laugh.
That afternoon, after we’ve handed out pizza and fridge magnets, and taken a group photo, the kids are rounded up and their teachers (for whom I’ve developed a new level of respect - Israeli kids are boisterous at the best of times, and plenty of them here today ran us ragged) are counting heads, I finally sit down in the shade. I fall into easy conversation with one of the volunteers in a city about 40 minutes from Tel Aviv. He tells me that one of his group has an awful lot of problems in her home, and that they’ve been really worried about her. Today, having her face painted, he saw her smile for the first time in months.
And hearing that makes my heart swell again. Blisters, finger cuts, thrown back? It’s trivial in the grand scheme of things. Many of these kids have had their first day of fun in a long, long time and I suspect they’ll not forget it any time in the near future. I only hope we can do it all again for more of them - soon.