2020 was a year full of undeniable challenges and changes. For Rising Stars Youth Foundation, this meant reinventing a 40-year model to meet both. Here, we asked Rising Stars founder and president Paul Savramis what 2020 was like for the organization and how it was actually able to expand through a crisis.
Q: The pandemic affected everyone and made survival difficult for many sports-based programs. How did you navigate around the fact that basketball was banned in New York?
Paul Savramis: We utilized learning pods. This was a new direction, and we were able to use new programming to better reach our families. The learning pod program launched back in the fall and offered supplemental academic support along with social justice education to many of our youth. Students also had access to a book club to enhance literacy. We continue to use basketball as a motivation, and from September through December, we reached 70 student-athletes from low to middle-income backgrounds.
Q: That sounds like an entirely new approach from what Rising Stars has done in the past. Can you expand further?
Paul Savramis: Different, yes, but not entirely new. Our outreach programs and community support initiatives have always been based on promoting and supporting education. We just repackaged it and made it a little more readily available on a virtual level.
Q: That sounds fantastic. Were you able to quantify the results or degree of effectiveness?
Paul Savramis: Yes. Our educational staff added an incredibly strong support professional in Heather Feschbach. Heather was able to develop metrics and surveys along with her hands-on approach to each program. Some results in specific areas were shown on a scale of 1 to 10.
Q: That’s impressive. Were there other program changes that address the specific needs of 2020?
Paul Savramis: There were, yes, and Heather had a hand in each of them. One that comes to mind specifically was the Leaders of Change speaker series.
Q: That sounds relevant to today’s social climate. Can you expand on that program?
Paul Savramis: The RSYF Leaders of Change speaker series brought in a series of inspirational leaders of color to talk to our students-athletes about matters of leadership, social justice, and pathways to success. The program featured notable individuals such as Shawn Costner, who is a partner at Dwayne Wade’s CAA AMP. Marcus Banks, associate team counselor and basketball legal coordinator for the LA Clippers and Sweat$, a platinum recording artist, were just a few of the names that our student-athletes got to witness during the pandemic.
Q: Can you think of a specific highlight of the year?
Paul Savramis: Toward the end of the fall season, RSYS implemented the book club. This also utilized basketball as a point of entry, and it capitalized on the common interests of our players to provide supplemental reading support, enhance literacy, and foster a love of reading for our students-athletes. The book club was offered to 37 student-athletes and has so far provided an hour and a half of instruction focused on Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover. The book was provided to student-athletes free of charge.
Q: It sounds as though Rising Stars had very little downtime in 2020. How would you summarize the year?
Paul Savramis: In addition to saying once again how fortunate we were to have a strong educational component and incredible leadership with our Director of Education Child Advocate Emily Ades, I would add that we were fortunate to add two bright Rising Stars to the mix. As mentioned above, Heather Feshbach and also Izzy Defrancesco, an amazing, energetic, and youthful intern.
Below, Paul Savramis presents testimonials that perfectly sum up 2020:
The Pod Program and Speaker Series for the Rising Stars program was truly amazing this year. With everything happening in 2020, this was truly an inspiring experience for our players. The kids asked some intriguing questions that fascinated the speakers every week. I enjoyed asking questions as well with so many different speakers with different exciting stories about their journey.
-Hank Williams, RYSF Coach and Parent
I really appreciated the pod program and the speaker series. The emphasis on social justice during the pod sessions was timely in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and within the context of our current government. Unfortunately, many educators avoid social justice issues and they are afraid to ask the tough questions. Our boys showed that they can handle these discussions and learn from them as they grow as young men … I’m so appreciative to everyone at Rising Stars. As a parent, my hope has always been to give my children opportunities that I never had and this program is a huge part of that.
-Kara Cutile, RSYF Parent