East Harlem Hoops

by Sebastian Castro

East Harlem Hoops gives Harlem a safe space for community members to play basketball and seek resources and guidance. The program was founded in 2009 by Stephen Mayes and Canraba Rogers-Wright and is run by the Salvation Army. Rogers-Wright, alongside Trevor Stanley, volunteer to organize schedules, meet with coaches, and keep track of statistics. Rogers-Wright and Stanley form the backbone of the league.

East Harlem Hoops began with only four teams, but now boasts 12, running tournaments year-round for anyone that wants to join with no age restrictions. Salvation Army pastor Lt. Alvaro Velasquez, an East Harlem resident, oversees the games.

“It certainly pushed me out of my comfort zone a little bit,” Velasquez said.

Velasquez has been involved with the Salvation Army for 18 years, first as a congregation member, then as a volunteer, then staff member. This is his first full year as a pastor.

“The Salvation Army is known as a social services organization. But what most people don’t know is that we’re also a church. The religious aspect goes hand in hand with the services aspects,” Velasquez said.
“Our mission is not just to preach to people but also to make sure people have the bare necessities.”

Before each game, members begin with a time of prayer. While that isn’t a requirement for players to join, Velasquez says that most do. It’s often during this time that players can find spiritual guidance and healing. Velasquez remembers one such time, when they were able to come together in prayer and support a player whose father had recently passed away.

“He was very appreciative of that,” Velasquez said. “We are here for them, and I think they know that and trust us, and we appreciate that.”

The Salvation Army uses East Harlem Hoops as a way to help locals by guiding them to resources that the Salvation Army offers. Participants are encouraged to seek assistance with food items and even rent/utility assistance.

“The purpose of East Harlem Hoops is twofold. It’s not only to provide a place for everyone to get together in fellowship in safe space, and for people to have a good activity that they enjoy, but it also just keeps people out of trouble as well,” Velasquez said. “When there’s nothing to do, when things are not accessible, young people fall into the wrong crowds.”

Velasquez understands not everyone who participates in the program is religious. Participation in the program doesn’t require participation in the church. Regardless, he thinks everyone could benefit from spiritual guidance.

“People are in need of prayer. People are in need of spiritual mentoring. And so our job is just to make sure when anybody has a question, when anybody’s open to it, we can help them out there,” Velasquez said. “If anybody shows interest, we always have to be ready to be there and we are there to guide them in as much as they want.”

East Harlem Hoops meets Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1306 3rd Ave.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *