It’s warm for March but a thin layer of snow remains on the basketball court, resisting the coming spring. There is a small island of snow-cleared blacktop at the base of a hoop and cluster of people stand around its edges, chatting as they take turns shooting a ball. A man busily shovels, gradually opening more concrete.
Reed Fox grabs a rebound and turns to watch the progress. “I’ll take a turn, Mo,” he says, trading ball for shovel.
Mo grins. His shot clanks off the rim, and he laughs. “Have another!” This time the ball sails in.
At first glance, they could be any group playing pickup ball at any park in any city. The sweatshirts are the tip-off. Reed, Mo, and the rest of the group wear the same light grey hoodie. On the front is a running figure framed by the words “Northampton Exercise Club.” Below is the phrase, “Sweating Away Homelessness.”
Last fall Reed and his friend Mike McGrath started an exercise club for the Northampton homeless community. Reed and Mike are sophomore sport management majors at UMass. Every Friday morning they drive to Northampton with four other volunteers: juniors Paul Merriman, Todd Webster, Jaclyn Van, and Danielle Crochiere.
“Growing up, my parents stressed community service,” Mike says. “When I came to school it wasn’t at the top of my list. But when Reed came to me with the idea, I jumped at it.” In high school Reed worked for Street Soccer USA, a group that organizes leagues for homeless people. Street Soccer is a key inspiration for the group. 75 percent of its participants are off the street within one year, proof of the positive impact exercise and community created by sport can make.
“Hey Mo. What’s up A.J., Ezekiel.” It’s a quarter to nine when the UMass students walk into the daytime drop-in shelter. A group sits around on couches, chatting. One man talks to a nurse. Another carefully folds his laundry. Mike sets some bananas on a table. “Can I have one?” a woman asks. “Go for it,” Reed says. “You coming to the park with us today?”
She can’t make it, but half a dozen people say they’ll join. A.J. is a regular. “I think it’s a good idea. A lot of people who’re in the homeless situation, they’re just kind of down on themselves. All they do is sit around and smoke cigarettes. They start gaining weight, they can’t do anything. So I think this is a really good thing, getting people out and getting them active.”
The UMass students stay at the drop-in for over an hour. Getting active is important, but so is building personal relationships. “Some of these people don’t have anyone to talk to,” Reed explains. “Once you start talking to people they open up,” Todd adds.
Mike remembers one especially powerful conversation. “I was walking with Carmelo and he said, ‘I want to tell you how I got where I’m at.’ This is it, I thought. I was grateful that he felt he could share, that I was someone he could talk to.”
“Not everyone is dealt a fair hand,” Reed says. “You don’t know what someone’s been through. It makes you appreciate your own life, what you have. Their situation doesn’t make them less smart, less good people. Carmelo is one of the best people I’ve ever met. It puts things in perspective.”
A.J. appreciates that the volunteers take time to listen. “Just the feeling that they actually care,” he explains. “I could feel the compassion. It was a good feeling, from people you’ve never met before. It was a good feeling.”
Ezekiel is another regular. He appreciates the social atmosphere the club creates. Hanging out with the students gives him a chance to talk about things other than politics and girls. “And they give you shoes.”
It’s past ten and time to head to the park. The UMass students stand with Ezekiel, A.J., and a few others outside the drop-in. One lights up a cigarette. “Nice ride,” someone comments as Paul pulls up in his car. Paul pops the trunk and Reed unloads several large cardboard boxes. “We give out sweatshirts,” Mike explains, “and shoes, to people who need them.”
The shoes are all shapes, sizes, and colors. Most are used, donated by UMass students and staff. A few neon sneakers stand out, sent by Jen Russo, a sport management major with a Reebok internship. “I think I met her once,” Reed says. Jen heard about the program and decided to help out. Her brand-new shoes are a big hit.
Paul sorts through a box. “Anyone need size 9? 10?” Reed sifts through sweatshirts. “You have XXL?” Mo asks. “XXL here.” Reed tosses one over.
At the park everyone takes turns shooting the basketball. Someone puts on music – “Shook Ones Part II” by Mobb Deep. A.J. raps along. “This’ll never get old.”
Darren meets up with the group at the park. Through the program he’s met UMass students and people from his shelter. “When you’re in a shelter you don’t talk that much. You go to your bed, you take your shower or you brush your teeth, but you know, they all come out. Like Mo playing ball and A.J., and you really don’t know their names until you see them out.”
This is the program’s third week. “We want to start off slow,” Reed says. Tossing a frisbee and playing games of H-O-R-S-E are good ways for the students and the participants to meet and get comfortable with each other. The exercise sessions will become more structured and intensive. “It’s going to take longer than we thought,” Mike concedes. “If we say P90X, no one would come.”