CENTRAL, S.C. – It’s an early Saturday morning, and inside the gym at the Clemson-Central Recreation Center, a group of 15 children, many of whom are 4 years old or younger, are running around followed closely by their parents, looking to throw their miniature basketballs into one of the many small hoops set up on the court.
A short distance away, players and coaches from the Daniel High (Central, S.C.) boys and girls basketball teams have gathered. In support of the center’s Smart Start program, the Lions spend an hour each weekend helping the children learn the fundamentals of basketball in hopes the children will learn to love the game they play.
“I think this is good for the community,” said Daniel boys coach Ben Touchberry. “It allows these kids to get to know our players and our players get to show that they care about more than just basketball.”
Smart Start was started more than 15 years ago at the recreation center for children 3 and 4 years old, with the goal of having parents spend quality time with their children to create good habits while they learn the basics of basketball, such as dribbling and passing. Since the program’s inception, the Lions’ basketball programs have been a large part of its success, through their selfless volunteering and interacting with the children to provide encouragement and learning.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” said Debi Schmidt, one of the organizers of the program whose daughter also volunteered in its early stages while playing with the Lions. “I had the idea of having them come and help. Community service is a good way to teach these kids to give back to the community because it’s a circle: Everybody gives and everybody receives.”
One player giving back on this day is Lions forward Brenton Benson, who while showing the children how to pass and shoot the ball, also playfully blocked a few shots as many of the children stood in amazement of his height. It’s that relationship that makes volunteering his time worth it, Benson said.
“My mom always said I was good with kids,” said. “I like the kids. These kids are great. We have a good community of kids, so this is fun and it gives me an opportunity to give back.”
It’s not just the children who benefit from the program. Parents are a crucial piece to the puzzle. And one of those parents is Joan Marler, who was encouraging her children to learn more about game as she bounced the ball to her son.
“We don’t know a lot about sports,” Marler said. “So this gives us a chance to come out here, have fun and learn more. They enjoy playing and love it. It’s a great thing to have here.”
Daniel girls coach Cosandar Griffin agrees.
“This means everything,” Griffin said. “Most of these girls grew up in this community and they grew up playing in this gym. Basically, it’s like giving back to the community from where they started from and helping the kids grow, get interested in basketball and trying to be involved. I just think it’s a great opportunity for us to help the kids get started from where they started from.”
And who knows? In 10 years, things may come full circle. Some of these children may end up playing for the Lions while devoting Saturday mornings to a future generation of Smart Start participants.
“It’s been great,” said Schmidt, who admitted she was sad since Saturday was the final Smart Start of the basketball season. “These little kids think it’s a big deal to see a Daniel basketball player, like a Daniel player thinks it’s a big deal to see the Clemson players.
“So it works all the way up when parents see a Daniel player and says, ‘Hey, they were involved in Smart Start.’ It’s just great for them and for the entire community.”