Who could have imagined that 10 years ago when Derek and I took 25 students and adults to the Philippines on spring break to build a basketball court it would bloom into a nonprofit with almost 100 courts completed through the participation of over 1,500 US volunteers and many more international volunteers in 22 different countries?
10 years ago we had no intention of starting a non-profit. Here is how the story goes: Derek received an email from the Philippines asking if he would come there and bring a basketball team. Derek had travelled the world playing basketball but had hung up the jersey and was working with student athletes. And so he responded to the email saying he no longer played but was wondering if anyone in the Philippines needed some assistance in helping build a basketball court, thinking it could be an opportunity for the students he was working with. Travelling, whether through basketball or on our own dime, had changed us. It opened our minds and expanded our worldviews and we wanted to pass that along to the students we knew. At the same time, service to our global and local community were equally important to us. So why not take these students we knew to a global community to assist a community in need? And why not do that through the sport Derek devoted his life playing. Well, he sent that email not really knowing what to expect… it was just an idea… not even one we were sure anyone really needed or cared about. Probably just a silly idea, right?
HOWEVER, the next day in the in-box there were 3 emails from 3 different communities in the Philippines saying a basketball court is exactly what they have dreamed of and couldn’t make a reality on our own (side note: basketball is the number one sport in the Philippines. They are crazy about the NBA there!). They all stated they had land set aside for that purpose but couldn’t make it happen and were excited at the possibility of getting some assistance to help the children in their community have a safe place to play the sport they are crazy about.
So with no experience in either building basketball courts or in taking students abroad, and some VERY trusting parents, we took 25 students and adults to the Philippines in April of 2006 to work with a community to build a court. We look back on that trip with SO MANY fond memories – eating delicious green soup, watching one of our high school girls shock the locals with her basketball skills, learning how not to flush a latrine, playing bingo with the locals, watching the resourcefulness of the community to find a water source when our first one was being used up for laundry duties, taking some of the same steps as those in the Bataan Death March and, finally, playing a basketball game on the finished court. I, Selene, was pregnant with our first child (who is 9 now!). We also look back and do so many things differently now (that’s a whole other story, right?). We came home from that trip with souvenirs and pictures, but more importantly high school students and adults, as well as ourselves, with a changed perspective, heart and outlook on this world. We all had been transformed. However, we thought of it as a one and done experience. We were proud of what we accomplished with no intention of doing more . . . UNTIL . . .
We received 3 more emails from 3 more communities, one in Costa Rica, one in Indonesia, and one in Honduras, basically saying, “We heard what you did in the Philippines and we, too, have the same need- can you come help us?” So Derek and I thought, “There must be an organization we can point these people toward” and so we scoured the internet to look- and couldn’t find one. And I guess we found it hard to say no. So over the course of the year we raised money for 3 more courts and recruited 3 more teams to go over and help all three of these communities. In the course of that year Derek came to me and said, “I think I want to leave my job and do this full time.” I looked at the tiny infant in my arms and at first thought leaving the security of a stable job was a crazy idea! But the idea couldn’t leave our hearts and minds. Eventually I came around and we came to the conclusion that failing is not even trying. Derek decided to leave his job and give it a valiant effort of trying to create an official nonprofit. If we failed we could always start over financially and move in with Derek’s parents (and as much as I adore my in-laws I really was hoping it wasn’t going to come to this! J).
So officially in the fall of 2007 we launched Courts for Kids. Now, if you remember the economy of 2007 you can recall that you probably couldn’t have picked a worse time to start a non-profit. We did go through many ups and downs, but we never had to move in with my husband’s family. We have some donors who have been with us since Day 1, who give faithfully monthly and yearly to Courts for Kids. We haven’t been funded by grants. We have survived and thrived because of generous donors who care as much as we do about our mission and cause. Not only did we survive (When I, Selene, came on staff in 2010, my first paychecks were only $500 a month for quite some time) but now we are thriving! Derek and I have 4 other employees, and we are hiring 2 more this summer. We have a scholarship program to help economically challenged students go on our trips. We see ourselves continuing to grow to about 35-40 court building projects a year while at the same time staying true to the core values that we started with. We have work with high school, colleges, sports teams and University Athletic departments. Most of these groups do annual trips with us.
So this little trip to the Philippines 10 years ago is what started it all. I can hardly believe it’s been 10 years! That child in utero is going on his second Courts for Kids trip this summer, accompanied by his younger brother. Courts for Kids has become a whole family affair for the Neslands. One we feel honored to have our own sons participate on as they grow into men we are hoping will serve others, be open-minded and eager to learn about the world around them, and have increased empathy. The same values we want your sons and daughters who have been/or will be on trips with us.
We have so many people to thank on the birth of this idea 10 years ago. Too many to name personally. But many of you reading this now know who you are- donors, board members, teachers, chaperones, trip participants, advocates, former Peace Corps volunteers we did projects with, NGO’s we worked with, community members who hosted us and worked along side us, students who have never been on a CFK trip but raise money every year to help bring sports to communities in need, errand runners, child care watchers (thanks grandparents!), and many, many more- THANK YOU FOR 10 GREAT YEARS!
Now let’s see where 10 more years will take us . . . .