Beyond the Books: hoops enthusiast gives kids athletic outlet

Summer program coordinator Hesh Alsafi jokes with soon-to-be eighth grader Gage Waybill.

Echoes of applause and words of encouragement, the booming voice of Hesh Alsafi brings out the smiles in soon-to-be eighth graders at McKinley Middle School in Cedar Rapids.

As a handful of hardwood hopefuls take the court, the gym transforms from a place to play to an athletic outlet, keeping kids active and out of trouble.

"I want kids in here rather than the streets, roaming around doing nothing or kind of just playing video games all day," said Alsafi, a McKinley educator and coordinator of a summer program which builds relationships through sports.

The young teenagers attending Alsafi's summer program look up to him as a mentor, referring to him as their "big brother" and someone they can follow.

Alsafi's drive to create engaging opportunities comes from an absence of options during his teen years.

"I've seen a bunch of my friends and other people I've known kind of grow up and steer the wrong way," said Alsafi. "Why not be that leader for them?"

Many of those attending said the program keeps them off the streets, some admitting they are prone to getting into trouble during summertime.

Others view the activities as an exercise, helping them staying in shape.

Alsafi said the largest turnout has been 18 kids on July 13, but he's hoping to increase that number to 100, which happens to be the most points scored by a single player on the highest stage of his favorite sport.

Aiming to inspire, Alsafi has a simple message for young people.

"You can be the next president of the United States. Seriously, you can be a millionaire. You can do all these wonderful things. You can be a doctor, a laywer," said Alsafi, upping the ante by offering his support. "I'm going to encourage you along the way. I'm going to make sure you're good. And anything you need, I'm here to support you in any way possible."

The program runs every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m., with a free lunch provided.

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