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John Carroll University student organization seeks to build relationships at Cleveland detention centers

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Service and basketball go hand in hand for students at John Carroll

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Cavs fans have become accustomed to great pregame hype videos. The scoreboard video screen is incredibly large (it’s called the Humongotron), it shoots out fire, and the Cavs spare no expense producing a quality product. The video itself is usually a celebration of both the Cleveland Cavalier players and the people and places of Cleveland. This year is no different. It helps that the hype video has players like LeBron James to highlight. But it goes beyond that. All through the video, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov dunks are spliced with the youth of Cleveland playing that same game at the park. The Cavs are the neighborhood team. The Cavs are the neighborhood’s team.

Basketball is a catalyst for organization. We at Fear the Sword would not be here without the game. It’s a catalyst for community, and community development. At John Carroll University in Cleveland, there is a group of students who understand that, and are reaching a part of the city that many spend little time thinking about.

They are called The Carroll Ballers. It’s a funny but apt name for a group that is doing tremendous work. The group visits the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center and Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Correctional Facility as many as six times a week to meet with groups of juveniles as part of an innovative mentorship program fusing basketball, tutoring, and kinship.

For many that spend time at a juvenile detention center, the experience is but a mere speed bump. Kids often are released to the same environment they found themselves in before running into trouble.

For the Ballers, the problem was complex: in service trips to the centers, tutoring necessarily created a hierarchical relationship. It was difficult to get someone at the juvenile detention center to open up about themselves, let alone start thinking about positive lifestyles. In addition to this, building relationships couldn’t take place with one-time or random visits. It had to be something bigger.

The answer came with basketball and a committed group. Each week, people spending time at the Juvenile Detention Centers have the ability (with good behavior) to be a part of the program. Flexibility is a part of the program’s success, but usually an hour of conversation, an hour of basketball, and then pizza or lunch afterwards is all part of the agenda. The students say that a huge part of breaking down barriers is the game itself; on the court, everyone is on the same level. The students don’t play against the people at the centers, they play with them.

The program’s success is encouraging in part because it’s so simple. The centers themselves have courts. About 85 JCU students are involved with the program, and 80 or so residents of the centers take part. The three year recidivism rate for those that find themselves in a juvenile detention center in the United States is over 45 percent. Over the course of the entire life of someone spending time at a center, there’s an 80 percent rate of recidivism. Since the advent of the program, The Carroll Ballers say that behavioral incidents at the centers are way down; the privilege of taking part in the program is something that helps residents stay on track.

We reached out to the Cavs to see what they had to say about the program:

"We understand we’re in a unique position and part of the fabric of life in our community. That’s very often a humbling position to be in and we never take it for granted. Basketball can often serve as a conduit and a universal language and communication tool. We experience that here and around the globe. It’s inspiring to see the many ways our game can provide a platform for help and growth, especially with youth on a personal level. There are heroes in our community that are connecting everyday with kids that need positive influences and help. They typically don’t ask for it, but they deserve recognition, praise and support for the impact they are having. They are the real champions among us."

There isn’t a ton of research on the success of the program, and the Carroll Ballers are the first to admit this. This is in large part because of its newness, but the students report that many of the residents show a new openness to studying for their G.E.D. It seems as though there has been a reduction in violence at the detention centers too, as residents are anxious to maintain eligibility for the program.

Each week, there is a theme of promoting positive personal choices and development. Residents develop the ability to prepare resumes and apply for jobs. It’s a holistic approach, with basketball as the organizing principle. In a video produced by the group, one resident makes it clear why the centers are so open to this type of program, and why it might ultimately work: "They don’t look at us as criminals, or what we did, they look at us as individual people."

They are indeed individuals with unique talents and abilities. They are also part of our Cleveland community. The decisions made at 15 shouldn’t necessarily be something that follows you your whole life. Programs like this that accentuate and promote skills and abilities that are already there deserve promotion. Basketball has the ability to break down walls and bring different groups together. The Cavs highlight that fact 82 times a year, and then some. The Carroll Ballers do the same.

Please note that we at Fear the Sword simply want to point out the good work of a community program involving basketball. This is not the place to discuss incarceration or the politics involved.