CINCINNATI -- Charles Perkins grew up in the West End and Over-the-Rhine. He knows that some people not from these neighborhoods judge them. He knows there’s a lot of negativity attached to those thoughts, and that there are legitimate reasons for those beliefs. But those are not his recollections.
“All I remember about this area is fond memories,” said Perkins, 45, who now lives in Westwood with his wife, Theresa, and their two children, Madison, 8, and Chase, 9.
So when Theresa Perkins came across the Saturday Hoops program held at the OTR Rec Center while on Facebook, she suggested to her husband that it might be a great activity for him and the kids while she worked on Saturday morning. Charles Perkins listened to his wife and brought Madison and Chase back to the old neighborhood.
When they entered the building just east of Findlay Market, those memories came rushing back to Perkins. He remembers the skating rink on the bottom floor, the basketball hoops upstairs, and he remembers people like Duane Harmon. When they walked through the doors of the OTR Rec Center, there was Harmon.
What started more than a decade ago to bring together two groups of basketball players, one from St. Ursula Villa School in Mount Lookout and one from Washington Park Elementary School, has grown into a program that last year served more than 300 children and involved more than 350 volunteers. The brainchild of a man named Ed Berg has been molded by people like his daughter, Nancy Costello, Kent Wellington and Harmon into a program with much loftier goals than getting in three hours of hoops, exercise, arts and fellowship every Saturday from January to May.
“I was one of these students 58 years ago,” said Harmon, who worked for many years at Taft High School before he founded Cincinnati Triple Threat, a year-round Christian ministry and mentoring group that works in collaboration with Saturday Hoops. “Single mom. Always knew who my dad was, but my mom always told me I could do anything I wanted. That’s what I’m trying to show these kids.”
Saturday Hoops began its 12th year on Jan. 9. It will run through May 14 when the group holds its annual Dribblethon festival at Washington Park. Each Saturday, the group will host 75-100 kids and 50-75 volunteers, said Wellington, who co-chairs the group along with Costello.
The program is free and open to any boy or girl kindergarten and up who wishes to attend. More information can be found at www.facebook.com/DribblethonSaturdayHoops. Each week includes basketball, various exercise stations designed to improve strength, agility and cardiovascular conditioning plus an arts and crafts area. There are different speakers each week who discuss that day’s focus, which is an offshoot of this year’s theme of giving.
“The best part about it is how they teach us how to be better people and role models and all of the people who volunteer to help us exercise,” said Dae’Quan Ford, 12, who has been participating in the program along with his younger brothers, Quintin and Q’Moni Bankhead, for the past few years.
The program is a way for families to connect, the lack of which, Harmon and Wellington said, is at the heart of so many of the troubles some children face every day.
“When we started, I had maybe two or three parents here,” Harmon said. “I had 17 parents here today.”
Denzel Mitchell wants to be a coach. He graduated from Roger Bacon High School last spring and is a freshman at the University of Toledo, where he majors in business sales and marketing. He began volunteering at Saturday Hoops last year and was able to attend this year's first day before heading back to college.
“I’m learning a lot about coaching, but the kids are teaching me as much as I’m trying to teach them about sports,” Mitchell said. “Kids are very honest, and they’re not afraid to speak out. It’s always good to listen because they’re always pure of heart. They’re always trying to help things out and try to make things better.”
Trying to help out and make things better is what Charles Perkins remembers Harmon doing. Perkins was a student at Taft while Harmon worked and coached there. When Perkins and his children walked through the OTR Rec Center doors, he knew his wife’s suggestion was a good one.
“If it weren’t for her encouragement, we’d be back at home. I’d probably have a cup of coffee in hand, and the kids would probably be sitting in front of a tablet or a video game,” said Perkins, as he watched his Madison artfully carve up some paper with scissors as Chase swished a basket. “When we walked in, I didn’t know what to expect. Then I saw Mr. Harmon. He was the person who I remember telling you that you meant something, that you are somebody.”
That, at its essence, is Saturday Hoops.