Students Bring Basketball, Mentorship to Juvenile Detention Center

Riley Benner ’20 (center) and some of the “Holy Ballers” SPUD volunteers outside the Leahy Center in Worcester.

Holy Cross students and center residents build relationships through peer-to-peer interactions and shared interests

The “John Carroll Ballers” is an innovative social justice project started at John Carroll University, a Jesuit university in a suburb of Cleveland. Last spring, Riley Benner ’20, a political science major and philosophy minor from Rochester, N.Y., brought the “Ballers” model to Holy Cross and founded “Holy Ballers.” The project is focused on peer-to-peer mentorship of residents within the juvenile detention system. The goals of the program include reducing the recidivism rate — ensuring that once a resident leaves the facility, he or she will not return — and showing residents that they are valuable to society and that their future is not determined by their past mistakes. Currently, Holy Ballers works with a male residence center; however, Benner is working to expand to female centers in the near future.

Benner started a “McQuaid Ballers” program at his high school, McQuaid Jesuit, after being introduced to it during a college visit at John Carroll. He explains, “I loved doing the program at McQuaid, and I went and worked with the boys as often as I could. I knew that wherever I went to college, I would start a Ballers program there too. When I came to Holy Cross, I emailed Marty Kelly (associate chaplain and adviser to Student Programs for Urban Development, or SPUD) right away. When I mentioned basketball at a juvenile detention center, he lit up. He had heard of the Carroll Ballers and the work they had done in Cleveland and was hoping that a Holy Cross student could take the initiative to start a program in Worcester.” When the program was launched on campus, it had overwhelming interest from the student body. Benner recruited 15 volunteers to launch the program through a competitive application process.

Currently, 17 Holy Cross SPUD volunteers participate in the program. Each Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, six Holy Ballers visit the juvenile detention center on Belmont Street in Worcester to play basketball with 30 residents from across Massachusetts, particularly Boston and Worcester. After the boys are done playing basketball, the group shares a meal brought by the Holy Cross volunteers and just talk. Over time, the Ballers develop relationships and similarities with one another, which is the foundation of the program’s success.

Benner explains, “I’ve probably played over 100 hours of basketball in the past three years, but basketball is only the icebreaker. The most important part of what I do comes when fellow students and I break open the food that we’ve brought and simply have a conversation. Each week, we talk about some different topic that they can take with them back into the world.”

This program is not only beneficial to the residents, but it has also proven extremely valuable for the SPUD volunteers.

“We’re not there to serve the boys; we’re not there to teach them what it means to be a good citizen, or to lecture them on the classifications of a Massachusetts felony,” Benner says. “We’re there... simply to be together, to be one. We don’t hold a bar up and ask any of them to measure up; we simply show up. And we tell them the truth. The truth that they are exactly what God had in mind when God made them. And we watch as they become that truth. And that’s a transformation that every single volunteer can learn from. In fact, it may impact the rest of our lives. It certainly has for me.”

The Holy Ballers program was created in such a way that it eliminates the notion that there are any differences between the volunteers and the residents. Benner explains, “I believe this program fits so well within the Holy Cross mission because it perfectly fits the mold of being ‘men and women for and with others.’ We shouldn’t simply commit ourselves to checking boxes. Often times, serving at a SPUD site becomes a regular weekly duty that we all ‘have’ to attend. However, when we begin to see the people on the margins, the people ‘whose lives might just matter less than other lives,’ and when we begin to see ‘them’ as ‘us,’ we can learn incredible things from them. That’s what makes the Holy Ballers so special. Often times, we leave the center having learned more from them than they have from us.”

Written by Colleen Naber ’18 for the Winter 2018 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

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