Small FACTS making big things happen

Posted: May 23, 2014

YOU WOULDN'T think it by looking at her, but Boni Zhang is the kind of kid who someday will move mountains.

She is little and precise, a cerebral seventh-grader at the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School, just north of Chinatown, where the focus is on social equality. The focus is not on sports; in fact, after severe budget cuts over the past several years, FACTS has no interscholastic sports programs.

What it does have is initiative, found in powerful, little packages like Boni Zhang.

Big packages, too. The school's gym teacher, strapping Luke Medico, last year decided the school at the very least needed an intramural program to promote team building and school morale. He scrounged together $700, raised through a flea market and a sweatshirt sale. He bought two portable baskets and some balls and started the FACTS Dragons, for the sixth- to eighth-graders. He coached the boys, and persuaded social studies teacher Steve Coyle to coach the girls.

They played outside the school on a converted parking lot. When it rains, they cancel.

Few kids in the 485-student school signed up last year, but after only one season, the teams caught on. Now, 45 boys and 36 girls make up six-team and four-team leagues, all coached, organized and officiated by Medico and Coyle, essentially for free.

It is the buzz of the five-story school.

Up on the fifth floor, FACTS development director Rebecca Rathje, eager to promote the basketball phenomenon, last month scanned the weekly deluge of grant possibilities. One caught her eye: If their application was accepted, Dick's Sporting Goods, through its "Sports Matter" initiative, would match funds raised by FACTS to benefit the basketball program. Dick's would provide a crowdfunding platform and a consultant.

The coaches and Rathje huddled and came up with a number: $7,000. They figured they could raise $3,500 in the 6-week window.

They raised it in 3 weeks.

They did it thanks, in part, to the initiative of little Boni Zhang.

"She posted the link on her Facebook page," Rathje explained, "and it took off."

Parents and teachers followed suit. Suddenly, the money was there.

Money enough to rent gym space on Spring Garden Street next season. Money enough to invite a few other teams to a tournament or two. Money enough to buy good, durable basketballs. Money enough so the kids don't have to spend $10 out of their own pockets for their team T-shirts.

"I know how to stretch a dollar," Medico said. "We might have enough for 10 years."

They can always use more.

The window for the Dick's fundraiser closes at 6 p.m. today; go to http://dsg.com/0405.

The window to help these sorts of kids and teachers who do so much to help themselves never closes: Go to http://ph.ly/vCsLw to donate. They help themselves every day.

Consider: Aurelia Bonitatis, the director of school culture, decided the school's girls could use a boost to their self-esteem. So, she organized a fundraiser selling Valentine's Day candy. She even got a kid to dress up as Cupid to deliver the goods on the appointed day.

Bonitatis used the money to buy a dozen boxing gloves and boxing mitts. She now runs an elective class in self-defense. She isn't finished: She plans to have her girls sell bottles of water at the next intramural basketball game to fund a field trip to a local mixed-martial-arts center. She hopes, next year, to raise more money to buy Muay Thai pads, so the kids can start kicking in her class.

Good pads cost lots of money. The return is invaluable.

"If it wasn't for the basketball program, I'd be going right home, doing homework, reading books," said Bryan Huang, an eighth-grade brainiac who will tell you unashamedly that hoops is not his thing. "I'm what you'd call an A student, a perfectionist. This helps me understand not being perfect is OK. I do pretty good at schoolwork, but I suck at basketball."

Huang lives just down the street in Chinatown. He is of Chinese descent, but the school draws all sorts of ethnicities from all over the city.

Boni Zhang and her sister, Linda, in eighth grade, are from Northeast Philadelphia.

Joseph Moiyallah, a black eighth-grader from Southwest Philadelphia who is all braces and grins, was "too shy" to play last year: "I wasn't that good at basketball, and I didn't want to make my team lose every game."

He came out this year, though, and his self-confidence skyrocketed as his skills improved: "I mean, I still need to work on my handle."

Janae Broadnax is a black eighth-grader from East Falls who will pursue dancing in her future, but, for the next few weeks, she is the Dwyane Wade of the FACTS Dragons; a speed demon who is as quick with her tongue as she is with her feet.

Broadnax has attended FACTS since kindergarten, and, with the absence of after-school programs, she always wished the school allowed for more intermingling, more . . . normalcy. A school like FACTS is a wonderful institution, but the students sometimes miss out on a bigger school's social dynamics or a suburban school's resources.

"Being on the basketball teams, you get to know people from other grades. You learn to have people to rely on," said Broadnax, who was overwhelmed by the quick and generous response to the fundraising. "It makes me feel like people actually care about us."

As school funding shrinks - Philadelphia schools face a $216 million shortfall in the coming fiscal year - nonessential programs such as sports and clubs get hit first, and hardest. That erodes the school's sense of community. Sports bolster that sense.

"There's a lot more school spirit," Broadnax said.

"Basketball makes it bearable here," said Ke-Asia Mitchum, an eighth-grader from South Philadelphia who recently and reluctantly transferred from Wakisha Charter School, which, unlike FACTS, has a real gymnasium.

So does Central High, as well as 14 Public League basketball titles. Bryan Huang will attend Central next year, because, he said, "All Asian parents in Philadelphia think Central is the No. 1 school." He will, he knows, not be playing basketball at Central.

For now, though, Huang is a big man on a very small campus, Medico said.

"I heard this outside my office the other day from fourth-graders looking at the schedule: 'The Heat is going to beat the Celtics. The kid on my bus is on that team!' " Medico said. "I mean, the little kids look up to the big kids. Maybe with this money, we can expand the program for some of the younger kids, too."

It's simple, really: More money, more returns.

You can't expect Boni Zhang to do it all.

She and Linda tend to hang back, smiling sweetly, their minds always moving. They are the sort of kids who sports can embolden to use their greatest gifts, even as they develop their basketball skills.

"I need to work on my game, too," said Boni Zhang. "I still double-dribble.

"A lot."


On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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