Shortly after the completion of the expansive Family Life Center at the Greentree Church in Egg Harbor Township in 2004, Executive Pastor Jerry Smith set to looking for a way to augment the church's ministry through its new space.
The 17,000-square-foot multipurpose room was built to house the church's drama program, but that aspect of its ministry started to be phased out shortly after the project's completion.
Recognizing that the openness and rectangular shape of the space made it a good fit for athletics, Smith looked in that direction. It was then he discovered the Upward Sports basketball program, a national network of youth recreation programs that emphasize Christian teachings and fair competition.
"As I explored options, the Upward program seemed like a very nice fit to reach into the community, maximize our resources and give us a chance to minister," Smith said.
Upward began at Greentree in 2005 and was an instant hit. Now in its ninth season, the program has become a big draw for the church and boasts a roster of more than 200 boys and girls in grades 1 through 6 spread among more than a dozen teams.
Each team practices one hour per week in preparation for its games, which are a half-hour long and are held from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays in January and February. Dozens of friends and family members line the sides of the two courts on game day, cheering on the athletes.
Upward is unique not only in that it incorporates Christian lessons into its games and practices, but that it seeks to encourage continued interest in the game by mandating equal playing time for kids regardless of skill and matching players up in man-to-man coverage with players of comparable ability. Starting lineups rotate each week, so every kid gets a chance to start at some point in the season.
Matt Deibert, a 21-year member of the church who has coached since the program's inception and became its co-director, along with Smith, last year, said Upward's emphasis on values has made it a good fit at Greentree.
"We do try to mentor kids, teach them what God wants them to do," Deibert. "It's character building, it's sportsmanship, it's Christlikeness and, of course, the fundamentals of basketball."
Following the end of play, teams are taken into the hall adjacent to the auditorium, where their coaches break down the games and give out honors in the form of colored stars, which represent achievements on offense, defense, Christlikeness and other areas.
Many of those who participate in the program have done so for a few years now, such as 8-year-old JoJo DeGaetano, who is in his second year with the program.
Joe, Jojo's father, looked at a few programs in the area before settling on Upward. He said it was the program's emphasis on positivity that set it apart.
"For kids this age, it's important to have structure, and I think this way, they all, like I said, get equal playing time, they're all rewarded at the end," DeGaetano said. "They have incentive to not only play well but to be respectful."
The program would not have become the success it is, Deibert said, without the help of its more than 75 volunteers, who coach, referee and man the concession stands on game day. The program has no paid staffers, and participation costs $75, which pays for uniforms, balls and the costs of running the program.
After last season, Deibert sent out comment cards to participating families asking for their input on the program, and the responses were overwhelmingly positive, he said.
"Last year I had an opportunity to meet with all the parents and get comment cards, and the majority of the cards were, 'Keep doing what you're doing,'" Deibert said.
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