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(Photo by Rebecca Blackwell ©2003 Town Topics)

LIFTING HOPES: Princeton High basketball players (from left) Alexis Dervech, Katie Bliss '03, and Jackie Dorman give a lift to some of the campers at the High Hoops basketball skills program which was held at the gym at Trenton's Donnelly Homes this July-August. Dorman, a PHS senior, founded the program this summer.
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PHS' Dorman and High Hoops Clinic Spark High Hopes for Trenton Girls

By Sue Repko

On a typical Friday night this summer, Jackie Dorman, a senior at Princeton High School, spent the evening with her friends. Any other summer, they might have been out at the movies or the mall, or grabbing a bite somewhere in town, but this year they had a different agenda.

Instead, they were in a gym at Donnelly Homes in Trenton, coaching basketball to girls who live in projects managed by the Trenton Housing Authority. And they loved it.

Dorman founded the program, "High Hoops," a basketball skills camp for girls ages 8-13. After Dorman suffered a back injury during soccer season last year and missed most of the basketball season for the Little Tigers, the down time made her realize what it was like to be unable to do something you love.

Her thoughts turned to other kids who didn't even get the chance to play organized sports. In most of the inner cities Dorman had ever visited, she'd seen kids just hanging out. The contrast with her own experience in Princeton hit her, and she realized that kids in cities are often deprived of playing because, as she put it, "They've got busted courts."

That realization gave her the idea of raising money to refurbish some of the courts in Trenton. Walter Bliss, the father of her teammate, Katie, and a member of the Princeton Regional School Board, contacted Cleve Christie, Assistant Director of Operations for the Trenton Housing Authority.

Christie was glad to hear from Dorman but he had another plan in mind. He had already put the courts out of business. To him they were a nuisance, magnets for drug-dealing and other illicit activity. Instead, he envisioned an instructional basketball program for girls. And that's how High Hoops was born.

"The concept now in public housing is to move people to self-sufficiency," said Christie, who also coaches the boys' basketball team at Solebury School in Pennsylvania.

"This is an integral part of it. Not only are they learning basketball, but they're building self-esteem and developing their abilities to work with others. It's a way of exposing them to people of different cultures, a different way of life. And also to what we have in common. We're hoping the good things rub off."

High Hopes/High Hoops

The name High Hoops came from a brainstorming session between Dorman and her mom. They were talking about the opportunity to give girls in the projects high hopes for their futures and the phrase just morphed into "High Hoops."

The whole program was very much a family affair, with Dorman getting coaching, organizational, and moral support from her parents, Deborah and Jeff Dorman, sisters Jelli and Liana, both John Witherspoon Middle School students, and Annie Mejias, who has lived with the family for 16 years.

During the spring and early summer, Dorman worked closely with Christie to put the program together. She sent out 150 letters, raised almost $6,000, and organized teammates, former teammates, friends, and family to help with coaching duties. The 2-3 hour sessions took place on Tuesday and Friday nights and Saturday mornings for a six-week period in July-August in the air-conditioned gym at Donnelly Homes.

The program served approximately 30 girls. Each one received a t-shirt, basketball, and trophy. In addition, at the end of each session, certificates were awarded for hustle, cooperation, and free throw shooting, and everyone received a snack on their way out the door.

The counselors in addition to Dorman included PHS students and/or alums Katie Bliss, Tamika Borges, Erin Walters-Bugbee, Jess Calicchio, Valerie Davison, Alexis Dervech, Tracey Jackson, Dave Jean, Ryan Morgan, Nick Procaccino and Eliza Stasi as well as Andrea Piccerello of Pennington Prep and Jelli and Liana Dorman from JW Middle School. Parents/adult volunteers included the Dormans and Mejias.

No Slam Dunk

The program did hit some rough spots in the early weeks, though. For starters, Dorman found herself in a crash course in leadership, time management, organizational skills, and discipline. With so many kids to teach, she quickly had to learn how to use her whistle and take advantage of the counselors who showed up to work at every session.

"It was a lot harder than I thought," she said. "The first two sessions I hated it. I didn't see how I could do it for six weeks. At the beginning I couldn't say "no" to anybody. But once I started taking control, they started respecting me. Now I love it. It's cool when we drive up and they are there waiting for us."

The practices went more smoothly once the girls were divided into two groups by skill level, which roughly translated into an older group and a younger group. Both groups worked on fundamentals like layups, passing, shooting, and defense. The older group began scrimmaging sooner than the younger group, which seemed to enjoy skill-building games more than anything, with the possible exception of braiding the counselors' hair.

She Got Game

For many of the girls, this was their first chance at playing organized basketball. Eighth-grader Niesha Eutsey said, "It was a great experience. I always wanted to play but never had the chance. The coaches were nice, and I had a lot of fun. I'm going to keep doing what I have to do to improve." By the end of the camp, she had developed solid shooting form and was working hard to get the shots to drop.

Erin Cade, a 9-year-old and the youngest player to work out with the older girls, said that her favorite part of the practices was the foul shooting. Her older sister, Shaquayah, 11, enjoyed the scrimmaging the best. "I like to show off my talents and practice in real games." That sentiment was echoed by Philyce Flounoy, 11, who immediately said that "playing the games" was her favorite thing.

"It was a wonderful learning experience for the kids, and by the end it showed in the progress they made," said Tamika Borges, a 2002 PHS grad who played basketball for Mercer County Community College last year.

For others, the program made their day. Ashley Marshall, 11, said, "There were days when I was bored, and then my mom would say it was time to go to High Hoops."

Showing Heart

When Christie spoke of the new world that could be opened up to the girls from the projects, he also saw the program as a way to also open the eyes of the Princeton counselors. "And they'll see we have some real fine kids here," he noted. "They may be from a disadvantaged background, but some are the kind of kids you'd want to take home."

He was right. By the final day of the program, which ended with a picnic, there were tears in the eyes of more than a few of the kids and counselors. It appears that the program will continue in some capacity, probably with more basketball as well as tutoring/mentoring and winter field trips to area high school and Princeton University women's basketball games.

"A while ago I wanted to be a broadcaster or work for a fashion magazine," said Dorman. "Now I want to keep doing something like this. It feels so good. It would be great to keep working with these kids and then have them help with the next group coming along. We've got a connection. I don't want to lose that."

When asked what else she learned through the High Hoops experience, she added, "Any kid can do something like this. You can think up anything you want and make it happen if you're passionate in your heart."

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