(Posted June 28, 2016)

Various players in the Ascend Together program in The Gambia
Various players in the Ascend Together program in The Gambia

Those outside of the United States tend to think of soccer as the ultimate game, but true to their Juniata-bred nature, Ally Lush '14, Mike Walker '14, and two other activists decided to use an American-made team sport -- basketball -- to build youth education in The Gambia.

Lush is a veteran traveler to The Gambia. She studied abroad there as a sophomore, and she returned there as an assistant with the College's short-term Gambia program. Lush met Seth Williams when the latter, a member of the Peace Corps, was founding Ascend Together. The group uses basketball to teach academic commitment, leadership, teamwork development, and discipline. When Lush graduated the organization was in need of a program manager.

"This past school year, we implemented a project called Rise Gambia. This program involved 90 Upper Basic students (45 male and 45 female)," Lush explains "Our coaches focus on the development of students as a whole person; academically sound, physically fit, and socially conscious. We also hold tutoring sessions with an English teacher and a math teacher for an hour before each training session."

Going into the program's second year, Lush is preparing to transition the program to local leadership. Lush's job is taken up by meetings to secure local partnerships and establish governmental connections.

"Sports are big in The Gambia and basketball is a good platform for developing teamwork, sportsmanship and leadership," Lush explains. "It also allows student to get mentorship from coaches, it creates coaching positions as a job option for Gambians and we are allowed to provide life skills that would not otherwise be covered in schools."

Ascend Together is partnered with the Gambia Basketball Association and Lush and her colleagues hope to incorporate the program into the goals of Gambia's Ministry of Youth and Sports.

She says the next step for the program is to improve its tutoring program and develop a standardized curriculum. In the next year or two, although Lush left her position in July to accept a Peace Corps assignment in Zambia, the basketball project will expand into more urban schools and try to make inroads into the country's provincial regions.

"I thought returning to The Gambia would be an excellent way to gain experience and give back to a community that I was connected to through my study-abroad experience."

Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.