Saturday mornings at church never used to be this fun.
At three area churches – Spokane Valley Church of the Nazarene, Spokane Valley United Methodist and Opportunity Presbyterian – Saturday mornings are all about kids and basketball.
The Spokane Valley program, called Upward Basketball, has 920 grade school-aged boys and girls divided into 78 teams, with 22 teams of cheerleaders for support.
Debbie Weisen coordinates the league from Spokane Valley Church of the Nazarene, but the good news about the program is being spread nationwide. She was in Kansas City this week to tell the story at a church conference.
When the league started six years ago, there were 186 children involved. The second year another 100 kids turned out. After that, the numbers really jumped. Last year there were 700 kids involved.
“It’s growing,” Weisen said. “We’re sponsoring a league at a new church up on the North Side. Last year we had them come with us so we could train them. We jump-started them with 40 or 50 kids who drive up there to participate. Between the two leagues, we have 1,150 kids involved.
“For the first time this year, we had to turn kids away because we ran out of space,” she said. “I had people tell me that they’d been part of the league for years, but wound up being shut out because they didn’t get their registration in on time. I hate those stories.
“Next year we’re adding another church to the program, Opportunity Christian Fellowship, so we will have more room.”
To make the league work, there are 243 volunteer coaches in the Spokane Valley league, 45 referees and hordes of volunteers who help out and clean up afterward. Between the three Valley churches, that’s 29 hours of basketball action every Saturday, with practice sessions sprinkled in. Something basketball-related is going on six days a week during the season.
“This community has been so supportive of this effort to find a new way of doing youth sports,” Weisen said. “This is a league where there are no technical fouls. The minute parents start getting a little excited, one of us goes and sits with them. It’s a different way of doing it, and this community has supported it so well that we are really trying to find new ways of giving back.
“Starting next year we’ll be giving out four $500 scholarships to graduating seniors. They’ll be kids who started playing Upward and then did something with it – and I don’t necessarily mean play varsity sports.”
Basketball will literally bring all three Valley congregations together Sunday for the league’s awards ceremony. All three will meet at University High School at 10 a.m. for a joint service.
Still, Weisen said, she worries about the kids who aren’t playing.
“Our next big emphasis is going to be twofold,” she said. “We have a special-needs league and we’re really going to support it and work to bring more kids into that league. But the one I really want to focus on personally is one for kids, and I’m not sure exactly how to put it – who are always left out. They could be underprivileged or can’t afford it and don’t know to ask for a scholarship. That’s who I’m determined to go after.”
Upward Basketball represents an alternative approach to sports from the tradition youth league.
Every child is guaranteed to see equal playing time. Teams are selected and computer-balanced so that every player matches up with an opponent of equal ability. The goal is to have 10 players on each team, each at a different playing level. Teams always play man-to-man defense.
“Our theme is that every child is a winner,” Weisen said. “Everyone plays the same, exact amount of time and has the same, exact opportunity. And we have some special rules so that the game doesn’t get out of hand and are unique to Upward.
“But the biggest difference is that we’re giving kids the opportunity to meet Jesus Christ as savior. We never cram it down their throat, but it’s there.”
The league, she said, is a chance to show kids what it means to live a life of faith rather than talk about it. In essence, show, don’t tell.
“We’ve preached and preached and preached,” she said. “This is a chance to walk it.”