There's nothing like volunteering

September 6th, 2017

I volunteered to work at a basketball camp. Held in Gary, Indiana, just over a hundred four-year olds to fourteen-year olds enjoyed three days of skill building, scrimmages, and chicken sandwiches for lunch. They learned to dribble, pass, and shoot better, while the volunteers learned other valuable lessons.  

Or maybe that happened for just this volunteer.

For example, I learned that a 50+ year old can miss a jumpshot, strain a muscle, and make kids laugh—all in the same moment. That led to a new appreciation for the phrase “Do as I say, not as I do” and new skepticism about “Mind over matter.” No, my body simply cannot move in the same ways my brain remembers that it once could. These revelations carry little value.

More importantly, I left camp with three important questions—one about leadership, one about kids, and the other about outreach. Questions that at first seem to have easy answers, but caused me to pause and think deeper. Good questions, the kind that help you grow, work that way.

Day One

An hour ahead of kids arriving, I received a critical assignment: inflate the basketballs. This role might sound unimportant, until one realizes the high stakes:

  • Basketball needs balls.
  • Balls need air.
  • Therefore, no air means no balls which results in no camp.

So I inflated eighty balls. Occasionally, a few needed another pound or two of pressure added—I committed early on that no “Tom Brady deflate-gate” controversy would happen at this camp. Over the three days, I grew to truly care about the balls because I saw how much the kids enjoyed playing with them. When the head coach’s whistle blew over and over throughout the day, I knew that either eighty basketballs were coming to me rather quickly, or that I needed to throw 80 balls out to eager campers. Oh, the pressure!

This job stood in stark contrast to my full time job leading an organization; a realization that catalyzed deeper thinking. Sometimes God needs a CEO, sometimes an equipment manager. A fun thought for equipment managers; CEOs not so much.

Question one: Can I deflate my ego enough to transition from leader to contributor? And if I believe the answer is yes, does it ever happen for real and not just for show?

Day Two

After the first few hours of camp, I received an additional responsibility: run drills with the older players and referee scrimmages. Most campers had never received coaching and none had played the game with a referee. Surprisingly, they responded well to direction and even better to playing by the rules.

One player stood out from the rest. I nicknamed him MVP; he possessed extraordinary talent. However, during a scrimmage he disagreed with a few of my referee calls and quickly formed a bad attitude. A shocking turn because he typically smiled and offered encouragement to others.

When our group went to the lunchroom for those incredible chicken sandwiches, I asked MVP to step out of line to chat. “You are by far the most talented player at this camp and probably in the entire state for your age,” I told him. “But when you started worrying about the calls I made, you played no better than anyone here.”

Those words captured MVP’s attention. So I continued.

“So just play your game regardless of what happens around you and regardless of what anyone else does. That applies to basketball and everything else in life. Be your own player, be your own guy. If you do that, you will be a great player one day and a great young man. And when you get interviewed on ESPN, remember the first person who told you it would happen!”

The rest of camp, MVP played at an inspiring level. He scored, he laughed, he helped other players do better—and we continually fist-bumped on every good move he made, which happened a lot; my knuckles were sore for days.

Question two: What do kids need most... a program that runs well or personal interaction with someone who cares? Many times, I assume that the former will result in the latter. When establishing priorities, which one drives decisions?

Day Three

For many, the tasty chicken sandwiches served as highlights. I admit to looking forward to lunch as much as anyone.

While we walked from the lunchroom back to the gym, a camper asked, “Are we going to have those chicken sandwiches again tomorrow?”

“Today’s the last day of camp; it’s just for three days” I replied, completely unprepared for what she would ask next. 


Question three: Can I commit to showing up for someone over the long-term? Or does my heart for serving others have a timer? Every program or outreach effort can’t continue without end, but do some people stick around long enough to let those they’re reaching experience a new normal, one filled with new-found love and/or joy?  

Looking back now, that camp taught a lot more than basketball.

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