Hoops and Hope: Eastbank youth program more than just basketball

Staff Report

A program on the Eastbank aims to teach kindergarteners and elementary school-age children fundamentals in basketball, as well as the game of life.

The beginners and intermediate basketball training at the St. Gabriel Community Center and East Iberville STEM Academy gymnasium began not long after the pandemic.

Jeffery Hayes works with a group of kids during a basketball session at the MSA East gymnasium. The program focuses on the challenges of life as well as basketball, he said.

The lessons extend beyond blocking, dribbling and layups, said St. Gabriel Councilman Jeffrey Hayes, who works with the program.

“We needed to focus on the social and emotional wellbeing so we could bring them back to some sense of normalcy,” he said.

Hayes had assisted in programs, but he decided to put a local program in place to help the community.

“I have two young sons, and instead of taking them to Baton Rouge or Ascension Parish for sports, I realized I could help more kids by stepping up and being a coach here by bringing that same youth involvement of the city,” he said.

The City of St. Gabriel, along with Iberville Parish Government and the Iberville Parish School System, have helped get the programs rolling, he said.

While the fundamentals of the sport play a big role in the weekly practice sessions, it’s not just about basketball.

“Being on the team for these kids teaches valuable social skills so they know how to share, trust one another and to support encourage one another,” Hayes said. “It’s important to assure that all sports teams here and all over the United States are equitable and supportive for all young kids so it can help them throughout the lives, along with that of the parents.

“Sports reveals characters, and you may see some kids pout or cry, but these activities help them cope with those emotional issues,” he said. “What you’re seeing here are life lessons – patience, teamwork, winning gracefully and being able to accept defeat.”

Nine players participate on the group for kids ages 3-5. It operates as a coed program.

The group for 6- and 7-year-olds has 10 players. It also functions as a coed activity.

Eighteen players dress out for the 8- and 9-year-old bracket, which separates girls and boys. Half will play competition ball, and the other will play recreation ball.

Juan Darville and Bruce Cushenberry also work in the programs.

Darville, 48, who graduated from the first East Iberville High School class (after the transition from Sunshine High School) in the early 1990s, works for the Iberville Parks and Recreation District and helps with one of the programs.

“I’m doing this for my community,” he said.

“The most fun is when they call me 'Coach' and seeing them develop their game and their confidence … I’ve done this long enough that I’ve watched some of them go into varsity football and basketball, and get college offers.”

Bruce Cushenberry, who has worked in youth programs since the early 1980s, marvels at how the programs have grown over the years.

“It’s come so far from the days when we were in that small gym at Sunshine” he said.

The programs today allow children in the program, sponsored by IPRD, to play in BREC because of the distance –and traffic –from St. Gabriel to Plaquemine.

“That will change whenever we get the bridge,” Hayes said.

The high school basketball programs may benefit from the early training, but it goes far beyond hoops, he said.

“This is an investment in our future, and it’s our responsibility to lead them the right direction and help guide through life at a young age,” he said. “We need to teach them about self-confidence and how to work hard to become successful.”

He said he does not allow the players to taunt each other or laugh at those who do not grasp the fundamentals as quickly as others.

“You won’t find there, and it’s not tolerated,” Hayes said. “We’re about lifting kids up by telling them they’ll do better next time. “Winning is great, but this isn’t all about winning,” he said.