Since the inception of PeacePlayers United States in 2017, U.S. locations – Baltimore, Brooklyn, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles – had co-existed in parallel to one another but rarely converged on joint projects. With the COVID-19 pandemic and in-person programming pivoting to virtual, the opportunity arose for PeacePlayers United States. cities to collaborate more closely. One such opportunity was the 5-day Play4Peace Virtual Summer Camp, a collaborative effort developed, organized and delivered by all five cities.
There were obvious challenges to a project of this magnitude. When the camp took place in July 2020, PeacePlayers United States had already been utilizing the virtual space for a few months, but challenges still remained. LaToya Fisher, PeacePlayers Baltimore Director and director of the virtual basketball camp, says that, with the many struggles facing youth during the pandemic, from losing family to COVID to having to compete with young people’s other virtual commitments, “what can I do or say to encourage the young people that are able to, join a virtual program?”
With this in mind, the PeacePlayers United States team went to work designing their virtual camp. Steph Poland, who was volunteering with the team at the time, noticed how the structure for each day focused not just on the physical wellbeing, but also on mental and emotional elements. Daily features included dribbling with former Harlem Globetrotter Briana (Bree) Green and TikTok dancing with dancer, actress and producer Natalie Miccichie. What varied from day-to-day were the special guests and activities, such as a tutorial run by NIKE basketball shoe design and a session on creative expression with poet Jo’rell Whitfield.
Steph feels these types of activities ensured that the “PeacePlayers energy” came through the screens and kept the kids engaged and wanting more: “While each city would have something unique to bring to the table, you still had the consistency with tiktok [dancing] with Natalie and [dribbling with] Briana. Kids would ask ‘when is the dribbling and dancing coming up!’”
The camp design was not lost on the participants and their parents. Feeling inspired by the ‘advocacy in the community’ portion of the Baltimore session, Mya J., a 9-year-old participant from Boston says, “we wanted to paint signs for Black Lives Matter.” Shaun, Mya’s dad, adds, “we did go [to BLM marches] and showed our support!”
Reflecting on the week-long camp, the father of 12-year-old camp participant Mya G., from California, noted how valuable it was for his daughter to see all the different people on the call, to see their differences, and also see that there were women of color in leadership positions and leading many of the camps’ activities. Women like Bree Green; Batouly Camara, former UCONN women’s basketball star and founder of Women and Kids Empowerment (WAKE); and Sherrie Session, former professional basketball player and founder of 4WARDMVMT, which focuses on connecting female athletes to the fundamentals of sports and life skills to discover their personal brands.
With many working from home, the access to these special guests is something you don’t get everyday says LaToya, “To hear Sherrie Session interact with the young people was special. She would give them affirmations – ‘I believe in you.’ It’s rewarding to hear that from someone that you may not know personally but you look up to.” If the camp were held in-person, LaToya feels this kind of engagement and collaboration would not have been possible, “[The VIPs] had the opportunity to sit and dedicate time because the pandemic forced everyone to slow down,” creating an “intentional space for the VIPs to be and observe/field questions for kids to engage with.”
What began as a challenge, became a strength for PeacePlayers United States. The virtual space benefited everyone involved in the camp – the participants, the special guests, and PeacePlayers. Whether you live in Los Angeles, Detroit or Boston, you got access to people who are changing the world. For the PeacePlayers United States team, they saw the power in collaborating nationally. “We saw the kids responding positively to bringing people from the different cities together; we saw the power of collaborating and it has influenced our national programs moving forward,” said LaToya.