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Hoops Sagrado is a Washington, D.C.-based youth leadership and development nonprofit organization that gives at-risk youth from the D.C.-area a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend a month during the summer in the highlands of Guatemala learning another language and culture, teaching their Mayan indigenous peers basketball skills, developing their sense of self, and gaining a new perspective on life.

Using the game of basketball as the common thread, the D.C. youth volunteers and their Guatemalan counterparts are able to not only share their love of the game, but the D.C youth learn how to communicate with, understand, and appreciate another way of life, which while different, shares many of the same challenges they face at home — racism, poverty, broken homes, lack of opportunities and social marginalization.

Exchange Program

Over the summer, Hoops Sagrado, Spanish for sacred hoops, takes 15 to 20 low-income young adults (ranging in age from 14 to 19) from their hard-scrabble lives in Washington for a completely different experience in a rural mountainous region of Guatemala populated by indigenous people of Mayan descent.

The program, which takes place in four neighboring villages, within an hour of Quetzaltenango (Xela) where the youth volunteers live with a Guatemalan family, starts in mid-July and lasts for one month. The group of youth volunteers and counselors spend five hours per morning (Monday through Friday) in one-on-one or two-on-one Spanish immersion lessons at Centro Maya de Idiomas, a Spanish-language school in Xela. The students are quizzed at the end of each week and are given written and oral tests at the end of the program. Some of the students are able to earn language credit with their D.C.-area schools and all students are able to complete their community service-hours graduation requirement during the one-month stay.

After a noontime meal with their Guatemalan host families, the youth volunteers travel by bus to the villages surrounding Xela where they spend several hours each day running basketball clinics for the young children in the villages (approximately fourth and fifth grade). The youth volunteers conduct the clinics in Spanish and English, thus improving their Spanish skills and helping their young Mayan charges learn a new language as well. The clinics culminate in a basketball tournament between the four camps held during an annual festival.

In addition to the Spanish-language classes and the basketball clinics, the youth volunteers participate in such activities as: repairing or constructing local basketball courts and plazas; creating murals in area schools; playing in basketball tournaments against Guatemalan teams; partaking in a “book club” where they read and discuss the biography of Nobel prize winner Rigoberta Menchu; visiting the home of a local weaver and craftsman where they make their first tortillas and learn about the process of weaving and blanket making; and visiting the world-famous ruins left by the ancient Mayan civilization.

Basketball courts are the center of life in rural villages, serving as the venue for markets, festivals, political rallies, religious ceremonies, and of course basketball games.

Because of basketball, the young people share a common thread even before they meet. Hoops Sagrado participants are able to form relationships with their peers, boost their self-confidence in social situations, find new ways of relating to others within a community, and gain the invaluable experience of learning another culture and language. They often come away seeing themselves in a completely new light – as mentors and leaders, worthy of admiration.

Hoops Sagrado works directly with teachers and counselors at several Washington, D.C. schools, including Woodrow Wilson Senior High School, Hyde Leadership Public Charter School, Maya Angelou Public Charter School, Anacostia Senior High School, School Without Walls, Booker T. Washington High School, Thurgood Marshall Academy and the S.E.E.D. School to identify D.C. youth who can most benefit from the educational and social opportunities provided by the cultural exchange program. The students are chosen based on essays, interviews and recommendations from teachers/counselors.

The cultural exchange program began in 1999 with one youth volunteer. To-date, the 110 D.C.-area youth who have participated as volunteers have gone on to public and private colleges throughout the country including: University of Massachusetts, University of Pittsburgh-Bradford, Michigan State, Radford, Delaware State, Potomac State, Xavier, University of Alaska, Tuskegee, Penn State, North Carolina A&T, Florida A&M, Corcoran School of Art, North Carolina Wesleyan, and Ursinus. Some of the D.C.-area youth have instead entered the workforce including becoming a firefighter and EMT with the D. C. Fire Department where their acquired Spanish skills have proved invaluable.

Scholarship Program

In addition to the “exchange program” with the children from Washington, D.C., Hoops Sagrado also funds scholarships for nearly 100 indigenous teenagers from rural areas in Guatemala to attend secondary school. Currently, Guatemala’s social indicators, such as infant mortality and illiteracy, are among the worst in the hemisphere. According to the World Bank Guatemala’s indigenous have an illiteracy rate of over 75 percent. These scholarships help address the critical need for education among the predominantly indigenous population who represent less than 2 percent of the secondary (sixth to ninth grade) student population.

The project seeks out indigenous teenagers from precarious financial backgrounds who demonstrate the ability and motivation to attend secondary school with the hope that they will one day go on to a university. Hoops Sagrado contributes tuition fees, uniforms, housing, food, and all other expenses incurred during their time in school.

The first group of scholarship students is scheduled to graduate in November of 2006.

Eventually, Hoops Sagrado hopes to build a Cultural Learning Center for the people in the region so they can continue their education, and at the same time contribute to their community without having to abandon it. Currently, so many are forced by economic or other circumstances to drop out of school after the fifth or sixth grade, go to work immediately, or start a family. Those lucky enough to find employment or an opportunity to study usually do so far from home and rarely come back.

Board of Directors

  • Bryan Weaver
    Hoops Sagrado Founder and Executive Director
  • Maria T. Cardona
    Principal, Dewey Square
  • The Hon. Adrian Fenty
    Mayor of Washington, D.C.
  • Mark Hansen
    Senior Vice President, Freddie Mac
  • Naeem Hargrove
  • Samuel Levy
    University of Massachusetts
  • Tito Morales Sam
    Co-founder, Centro Maya de Idiomas
  • M. Mindy Moretti
    Writer, electionline.org
  • Mark Steitz
    Founder, Senior Principal, TSD Communications