JACKSON HEIGHTS — A midnight basketball program has a wider vision than the hoop or the backboard. It's not just about winning the game; it's about winning over a brighter future.
The program, which aims to take kids off the streets, runs every Friday from 6 p.m. to midnight at the National Football League Youth Education Town Center at Jackson Heights, a low-income neighborhood in East Tampa.
The midnight basketball program provides a safe haven to an estimated 40 to 80 youths on a given night, said Essie Sims, community leader, pastor and founder of the program. "These kids want to do what's right, but with the pressure outside of these walls, they find it hard."
Sims said young people can also learn life skills from midnight basketball. "It teaches how to love one another, how to get along with one another without violence," he said.
Unfortunately, he says, when youths are told enough times that they're not good enough, they may start to believe it, so the center also tries to mentor them.
"We're bringing in life coaches," Sims said. "We're bringing in successful business owners and leaders to come in and talk with these kids, and give them positive affirmation on to some of the goals that they have in mind and how we can help them achieve those goals."
Across the country, NFL YET centers offer tutoring, mentoring, career training, computer education and access to recreational activities in Super Bowl host cities to empower youth in at-risk neighborhoods.
Stephen Shaw, 16, has been coming to the YET Center at Jackson Heights since he was 11. He was in the after-school program in the fifth grade, and he started coming to midnight basketball when he was 14. If he's upset about something, he says it eases pressure just to come to the gym and shoot hoops.
Ky'llen Hymon, 15, started midnight basketball at age 13.
"Friday night it's like everybody will be tripping because it's the weekend, doing stupid stuff, so I come here to play basketball and get my mind off of everything that happened during the week," he said. "Pastor Sims taught me how to be a man as far as respect for my mom, do what you have to do as a man to take care of the people you love, and God coming first," he said.
Sims, who is a chairman of the East Tampa Community Revitalization Partnership Advisory Committee, said the program started about 2 1/2 years ago after he got approval to use a city recreational center. The cost of a city recreation card is $15 a year, which several partners help to pay so the kids don't have to worry about it.
He said those partners share the goal of the advisory committee, to give the youths "a safe haven, an opportunity for kids to come in and exert themselves as they're doing here."
Sims added: "Especially young men, they have lot of pent-up energy and stuff like that, and when they're able to just come out here and just let it go, you have a tendency where they're now mellow, they're softer-spoken."