Spreading the hoops gospel
When Shelley Nweke found out the Peace Corps was going to send her to Suriname, she was excited. But then she had a question.
"Where is Suriname?"
Considering she would spend three years there, the former Stanford basketball player got out a map and found out as much as she could about the small South American nation not far from the Caribbean, nestled between Guyana and French Guiana on the Atlantic coast.
Nweke had no way of knowing it at the start, but ultimately that trip would change her life. Nweke and her teammate Morgan Clyburn hatched an ambitious plan to bring an American-style basketball clinic to the Surinamese girls. They saw what kind of impact it had, and they now are wondering how they can use that clinic as a model for events worldwide. It's an ambitious plan, but there are no consequences for trying.
But back to 2009. The Peace Corps assigned Nweke to a few villages, where her daily routine included talking to people about staying healthy, nutrition and community planning. While getting to know the areas, she was always looking for a way to play sports and wanted to get the local women and girls involved.
She noticed there weren't a lot of options. Physical education wasn't part of school curriculum. And some girls were getting married as young as 13 and starting their own families. For those who stayed in school, after-school activities, Nweke said, often consisted of chores and caring for younger siblings.
"You don't have time to just be a kid," Nweke said.
Playing sports may have been unusual for girls, but it wasn't stigmatized like it is in some cultures. Nweke started a walking club in Godo Olo. It was a modest beginning, but she didn't have a lot of choices.
"In the village it's difficult because you don't have a basketball court -- you don't even have level fields," Nweke said.
While Nweke was taking baby steps, she reached out to some of her former teammates. Clyburn had started a basketball company called Bay Area Basketball Academy or BABA. She hosted a league and brought clinics to groups in California. When Nweke sent a letter to other Stanford athletes asking for donations of uniforms and equipment, Clyburn was quick to respond.
Finding her passion
Nweke is aware of the studies linking women's corporate success to their sports backgrounds. Recent research from Ernst & Young found that 90 percent of female executives had played competitive sports and many of those women thought it contributed to their ability to work in a business environment.
"I think sports is a great way to do it," Nweke said. "It's kind of a subversive way of empowering women."
It's something she was aware of because of her own background. Nweke wasn't an athlete at first. Born to Nigerian immigrants who moved to Marietta, Ga., she had parents who stressed the value of education to all four of their children.
Nweke never considered basketball until a growth spurt in ninth grade. Walking down the hall at 6-foot-4, she caught a coach's eye. "You need to be playing basketball," he said. And soon she was. The scholarship to Stanford meant a first-class degree in industrial engineering without the subsequent debt. Her basketball career ended early due to knee surgeries, but she got her degree and took a job that focused on transportation and planning.
"It was a fine job but it wasn't really my field and it wasn't really my interest," Nweke said, "so I started doing a lot of community service. I thought, you know, I kind of want to do this full-time."
Making it happen
After Nweke put out the call, her Stanford teammates came through. Clyburn raised money by joining with a non-profit in Suriname called Vereniging van Basketbal Trainers en Officials. In 10 days she had raised $15,000 from the corporations her Stanford classmates had gone to work for and her family and friends.
In April 2011, Clyburn and several other Stanford alumnae flew in and hosted two clinics over five days in Suriname's capital, Paramaribo. One clinic was for the Suriname national teams and the other was for local girls. Donated uniforms and equipment greeted the girls, some of whom had walked miles to attend. About half of the capacity crowd didn't have sneakers.
"I was so nervous to accidentally dribble on their feet," Clyburn said.
Clyburn sensed skepticism from some of the male coaches, but after a few days she found herself getting into technical discussions with them. One of the other Peace Corps volunteers pointed out it meant a lot for the girls to see male coaches coming to respect what the Stanford players had to say.
"I came away from the clinic as a whole thinking what we had done was so much bigger than just holding a clinic for five days," Clyburn said.
The energy and the response they got made them see how hungry some people were for instruction and activity.
"Right after we did it there were people coming up and asking when we were doing it again," Nweke said. "The love of it is there. It's not widespread, but the people who play really love it."
And as much as the clinic was the culmination of a lot of planning, it may have been the beginning of something as well. After her return to California, Clyburn started investigating what it would take to turn Bay Area Basketball Academy into BABA Global. She has been working with lawyers to apply for non-profit status, and she and Nweke dream of a day they can not only return to Suriname, but look for other places to take the clinics.
"My joining a sports team in ninth grade really opened me up as a person and made me confident," Nweke said. "And when I went to Stanford, being part of a team really set me up for success."
It's a big idea. But so was applying to the Peace Corps in the first place. Nweke's experiences both abroad and at home have helped her figure out what she's passionate about -- one crossover drill at a time.