The beauty of the Hope Leadership Academy story is its potential for perpetual replication.
You see, HLA’s founder, Willie Briscoe, has a heart for kids from single-parent homes – because he grew up in one. And as such, he is well versed on the challenges these kids face. But he also knows that all it takes is one caring person – a friend, a teacher, a hero, a mentor – to help steer a young person in a positive direction. Frankly, had it not been for a middle school teacher and coach taking Willie under his wing, life for Willie may have turned out much differently.
It was during his sixth-grade year, while running with a group of kids that were consistently making poor choices – getting into trouble, struggling with authority – Willie found himself in a guilt-by-association predicament. Two of his buddies were suspended. But the teacher looked at Willie and saw hope. Rather than suspension, Mr. S decided to punish the growing, but still somewhat gangly Briscoe, by forcing him to join the newly formed, middle school basketball team.
I can hear you asking, what kind of punishment is that? A kid gets into trouble and he’s forced to play basketball? Sounds like a reward, right? Except for the fact that Willie knew next to nothing about the game – he couldn’t shoot, and had zero ball handling skills. Basically, he spent a couple years being laughed at on the court. Now think back to your middle school years, and you’d have to agree this doesn’t sound like fun.
To be sure, in recruiting Willie, Mr. S. had a deeper, underlying motive. He understood basketball might be the only way Willie could afford any sort of higher education.
Fast forward a couple years, heading into Benson Polytechnic High School, a prestigious basketball school in Portland. Willie continued to grow physically, but his skill on the court was not keeping pace. He struggled to make the Freshman team and after tryouts found himself on the fifth string.
That same year, the Lakers won the NBA championship, and as fate would have it, AC Green (a Benson Poly alum) and Magic Johnson came to speak to the team. Magic challenged the young men to focus and work towards a specific goal. Simple advice that Willie took to heart. Right then he set his sights on a starting position, as a sophomore, on the Varsity basketball team.
Seriously? Jumping from fifth string on the Freshman team to starting on Varsity? Willie took Magic’s challenge to the next level!
From that point, and throughout the summer, Willie lived on the basketball court; playing well into the evening on most days. And by game three of his Sophomore season, his investment paid off – he was named a Varsity starter.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t equally invested in the classroom. So, while he did have a successful high school basketball career, his grades negated any chance at a college scholarship. As a “Prop 48” athlete (failing to meet NCAA minimum academic requirements), he decided to attend junior college in Salem, Oregon. It wasn’t a bad choice, as he wrapped up his two-year career with a championship season.
Surprisingly, the junior college success left Willie a little burnt out and he decided to take a break from competitive basketball. He remembers celebrating the championship, and at the same time feeling relieved that he wouldn’t have to go to practice the next day. We’ve all been there. Losing a bit of the drive for something we thought we loved.
And here’s where Willie’s journey gets a bit unconventional. Even he would admit that not having a clear professional direction as he left school was frustrating.
For the next ten or so years, Willie did various jobs in the non-profit sector: drug and alcohol counseling, as well as working with kids in the youth prison system. At the same time, he also worked as – get this – a body double in TV commercials for athletes like Scotty Pippen, David Robinson, even Michael Jordon. I didn’t even know jobs like that existed!
Around the age of 28 Willie turned his life over to Jesus, and shortly thereafter, he experienced a rekindled desire to play basketball. Now remember, he was 28 at the time – a little past his prime as far as college sports go. But as he fasted, prayed and grew in his faith, Willie felt strongly that his playing days were not over.
Some time passed, and as he approached 30, Willie was unexpectedly offered another body double job. Initially he turned it down, as he’d been away from modeling for quite some time. But the production company persisted.
Eventually, he gave in, and headed to UCLA to shoot a Gillette Shaving Cream commercial. The commercial pitted the rookie, Tim Duncan, against the veteran, David Robinson. As Wille exited his dressing room trailer one afternoon, David Robinson happened to exit his trailer at the same time. Dressed identically, Willie found himself standing face to face with the only Christian basketball player he knew of. Right then it was settled – he was going to play basketball again.
Life is crazy sometimes, you know? Because within a few short weeks of the body double gig, Willie got a call from a basketball coach at Point Loma Nazarene University, who just happened to see a poster featuring Willie shooting hoops with Michael Jordan. Willie was now 30 years old, but the coach didn’t seem too concerned, and offered him a chance to play for the PLNU basketball team.
It only took one visit to the Point Loma Campus, which sits on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in San Diego, and Willie was all in.
After a couple years on the team, and a year as an assistant coach, Willie graduated from PLNU and started a small personal training business. A few successful years later he was ready to open his own gym. But prior to doing so, Willie’s pastor encouraged him to dig deep, and prayerfully consider his next move – based on his gifts, passions and experience, as opposed to what may have looked like a logical next step.
And this brings us back to mentorship and its potential for perpetual replication.
Whether Willie was aware of it at the time or not, the foundation of the Hope Leadership Academy was being laid back in his sixth-grade year. Mr. S. used sports to connect with Willie and set him up for a better future. During Willie’s freshman year of high school, Magic Johnson added to the vision with a challenge to focus on a goal. And later, the encouragement of Willie’s pastor would have a profound effect on his life – and in turn, the lives of countless others going forward.
Which brings us to today.
The Hope Leadership Academy offers after-school tutoring and mentoring during the school year, as well as free sport camps throughout the summer. Program leaders and volunteer coaches spend countless hours encouraging, coaching and caring for the students – guiding them through the typical challenges kids face, and some that are specific to their unique family situations.
Take Elizabeth for example, a ninth grader at a local high school. She recently spoke to Night of Hope attendees, sharing her story and the effect HLA has had on her life.
In her words: “Before I joined Hope Leadership’s after school academy, I used to hang out in the streets with my friends after school. I didn’t listen to my mom much…I didn’t like to follow the rules in school or listen to the teachers. My bad attitude would get me into trouble a lot. When I joined HLA, my attitude was no different…and would often get me in trouble…[But] instead of being kicked out for my behavior, Mrs. Eileen and Miss Maddie would constantly take me out of the room and talk to me, one on one. As time went on, I could tell they really cared about me…I was then able to open up more about what was causing my outbursts.” Elizabeth has gone on to change her “behavior for the better” and “also treat [her] mother better.”
I think it’s safe to say that had it not been for the care shown by HLA’s Mrs. Eileen and Miss Maddie, Elizabeth could be writing a much different story right about now. But instead, their mentorship has fostered positive change for Elizabeth in her home, at school, and in the “people she hangs out with.” And if that wasn’t enough, she now enjoys volunteering at Hope Leadership events! “Being able to give back and learn new things has made me feel really good about who I am and what I can do with my life.”
This, from the heart of a ninth grader!
There is no telling what Elizabeth will go on to accomplish, and who her words of encouragement will one day effect. But I am certain her impact will be positive.
Thank you, Miss Maddie and Mrs. Eileen (and to all the HLA mentors and volunteers) you are a blessing to the kids and communities you serve.
While Elizabeth’s story is awesome, no doubt, there are many other Hope Leadership Academy success stories that we will share in subsequent writings – like Brianna’s – who says, “Thanks to [HLA] I now understand that I am not someone who follows the crowd, but rather follows God as a leader among leaders.”
Once again, we come back to the replicable power of mentorship.
Willie sums it up this way – and we’ll wrap it up here…for now:
“Changing the hearts of these kids is how we change the world.”
HLA is a comprehensive year-round youth ministry that seeks to ensure that youth from fatherless homes in underserved communities receive support, guidance and a plan to break the cycles of divorce, poverty and hopelessness.
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