Empowering Young Women Through Basketball
YMCA of Greater Halifax/Dartmouth
Empowering our communities is never a one-time “done and dusted” deal. This is especially true for the Community YMCA with 70 years a community built around basketball that has impacted youth well beyond the sport into their education, wellbeing, careers, and identity.
Since founding the Maritime Elite Girls Basketball Academy (MEGA) based out of the Community YMCA Coach Lezlie States has been dedicated to address missing avenues of support for young women in the Northend of Halifax and in Dartmouth. She has embodied the importance of empowering young women through leadership and education with the vision that basketball is more than carrying a ball.
“If you are coming to MEGA just to play basketball it’s probably not going to be for you, because I’m going to, my program, my coaches who are amazing, my mentors, we are going to want more from you.”
Over 200 young women have gone on from the program to became lawyers, doctors, physiotherapists and pediatrician all over the country with whom she keeps in constant contact with. Many young women who were coached by Coach Lezlie has found important mentor and role model who believes in their child’s potential, growth and over all wellbeing.
Before the pandemic MEGA participant had the opportunity to travel and do exchanges across the country and in the United States. One of the most memorable trips for the young women was playing for the AAU Girls Nationals in Disney World where out of the 75 teams they were the only international team playing. For many of the young women from low-income families it was an opportunity that the Community YMCA provided towards their personal growth and knowledge that they would carry for the rest of their lives.
“We are about building up young women and helping them navigate as they go through life. So part of our navigation is about education but is also about the travel and what you get from that educationally”
Within that long history of Basketball in the Community YMCA, through the “Carry the Books, Carry the Ball” initiative, she made it clear to her team that supporting and focusing on their education was a requirement to be part of the team at MEGA. Playing for MEGA and the Community YMCA meant ensuring their school work and projects were completed, midterm reports were submitted and that they were using the resources of Community YMCA and its partnerships with the Northend Library was important for being part of MEGA.
Part of the mentorship that the young women especially of color received at MEGA was a safe spaces to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences something that States recognized is also an important part her social justice work advocating Black Nova Scotian Youth. “The Black Lives Matter session with us was really a no-brainer for us” and “It was an extension of what we did anyway.” A crucial part of each practice was incorporating at least 15 minutes of that time, one that formed unbreakable bond with the young women.
“I don’t know that people actually understand that connection that our community and the Community Y is a safe space for the majority of our kids in our community. It is a warmth for them, it is a full belly for them, it is love for them, it is compassion for them, it is discipline for them.”
Despite the restrictions from COVID-19 the young women of this year’s cohort manage to stay connected with each other either through social media or by virtual meetings all with the support and mentorship of States. States has witnessed the bond among her team grow in stronger ways that she anticipated during the pandemic. From the middle of April to mid-august the team was even lucky enough to gain some in-person practice at the George Dixon Centre outdoor courts something States and her girls were grateful to have.
States has a long history with the Community Y having both grown-up in the Y and having family who’s been deeply involved in leading and supporting YMCA and the basketball and sports program in the North End. Her Father Bobby Smith a prolific hockey and basketball player passed on his love for sports and basketball on to her and her brothers, Mark, Craig, Thane and Wade. As States fondly remembers, her family was the community family, with a home open to everyone.
“My mom was the community mom and so there was always a pot of something on the stove fresh for whoever was coming through. You know for us it was about instilling the reality that community first, family special and everybody deserves to be treated the same”
Over the years Coach Lezlie has seen the apprehension in her community towards organizations who deliver programs and services with only short-term goals and objectives in mind. Missing that long impact for communities to realize their full potential can often result in a setback for many who claimed to have benefited from a program or service only to have it disappear at a crucial period. A focus on short-term goals based on numbers often results in reinforcing the dependency of participants on those programs rather than find a sustainable launching point that envisions long term wellbeing and success. Community empowerment is about building trust and a commitment that shows you won’t suddenly disappear the next day when a program is over.
“I want to be able to meet every child where they are at and help them move on from there. And the reality is you are going end up with 36 different people and so its work, right? It’s a marathon, and it’s not a sprint and I think some people think it’s a sprint that they can just go in and just run this bit and run that and do it and walk away and go.”
States impact with the community and YMCA is felt across the countless young women whose lives she has enriched with her love of sports and social justice. She echoes the journey to community empowerment starts with recognizing and leveraging the strengths and opportunities each community has and what makes them unique.
The good thing about the YMCA is that every building of the YMCA across Canada and across the world are different.
“In each community they bring a different thing to the community, they specialize in what they do in their communities. I think it’s crucial for people to understand what the connection is that the Y has in that community and then just try and foster it and bring out the best of it because it does great things. The Y in general and the Community Y amazing in their communities and I will always forever be blessed and honoured to be an alumnus of the Community Y.”
To learn more about the Maritime Elite Girls Basketball academy (MEGA) visit: www.megabasketball.ca