Creating awareness, one bounce at a time
SCOTIA Second Street was a little sleepy two Friday mornings ago.
Colorful election signs (democracy at work!) on the grassy aprons; a seasonal flag depicting orange leaves fluttering from a post; some goofy Halloween decorations, including the Grim Reaper with his sickle, guarding an otherwise empty porch on a quiet street.
Up the block, Matt McCarty’s eyes frequently bugged out in wonder as he described his project and what it means to him.
And what it could mean to some desperate families over a thousand miles away in Haiti.
Five years ago, McCarty was a basketball star at tiny Schenectady Christian School, since renamed Mekeel Christian Academy, and now he’s a teacher there on Second Street, with two American history classes and two Bible classes.
He admits that he’s not much of a fan of his alarm clock, but on those groggy mornings when he’d rather just keep constructing a head-shaped dent in the pillow, various pictures in his head rouse him.
It might be the makeshift ball game he started with a bunch of kids, a bamboo stick and limes right off the tree for baseballs.
Or it might be the woman who interrupted a big Sunday church dinner at an orphanage in Port-au-Prince.
The happy gathering was jarred by a scream, the mother returning with her dead 2-year-old son in her arms, eight short days after they had been released, fully happy and healthy, from the benefit of six long months of intensive care to save the child.
“Not like your sister screams because she’s having a meltdown scream, but, you know . . . it’s curdling, something’s wrong,” McCarty said. “Something like that happens, you don’t just say, ‘That stinks.’ You’re like, ‘Something’s got to be done.’ ”
This, for one thing, is what McCarty is doing on Sunday: running the Empire State Marathon in Syracuse.
That may seem unremarkable, but, at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, he’s not exactly built for this sort of thing.
Oh, and there’s this: he’s going to dribble a basketball for the length of the 26.2-mile course.
I’ve covered enough marathons in 25 years to know that these races often are used as a stage for a variety of attention-seekers, usually for a worthy cause, sometimes just for fun (I’m looking at you, Spiderman).
In McCarty’s case, he wants to raise money and awareness for Second Mile Haiti through Dribble the World, a 501(c)3 non-profit charitable organization founded by Dan Occhiogrosso in 2007 that encourages runners to dribble a basketball for the length of a race, usually marathons.
Second Mile Haiti, for which McCarty worked this summer, was approved as a fund-raising venture by Dribble the World based on the fact that it’s a Christian organization dedicated to poverty alleviation.
Part of McCarty’s preparation for the Empire State Marathon was to take a test spin in the SEFCU Labor Day 5k in Albany.
He’s taken some practice runs with the ball, including one of his 20-milers, but doing it in isolation during training is profoundly different from plopping yourself and your roundball amidst hundreds of racers who have their minds on sustaining a fragile rhythm.
“Dan told me that for every 20 people who are going to think this is awesome, there’s going to be one grumbler,” McCarty said with a chuckle.
Check, and check.
McCarty said he passed one woman who muttered, “Well, that’s annoying.”
Otherwise, everyone, including the race director — who worried for a moment that this was going to be just a prank or a self-serving stunt — welcomed this weirdo and his basketball. Wearing a white T-shirt with “SecondMileHaiti.com” in huge letters, McCarty ran 26:47 in the first race of his life. For his Empire State Marathon run, McCarty hopes to raise $5,000 that will go directly to a recovery home that costs $30,000.
At schools the size of Mekeel, a kid who’s 6-2 usually is told, “Son, you’re going to play center,” then spends his time with his back to the basket and perhaps dribbling once or twice into a scoring move.
That was McCarty, who also played college ball for Baptist Bible in Pennsylvania.
“I was thinking, ‘Oof, I’m not really a runner,’ ” he said. “I was kind of known for being a slow guy. If you were to pick somebody from our basketball team and say, ‘In three years, this person’s going to be running a marathon,’ I’d be the last one picked.
“It’s kind of fun, almost a challenge, which I enjoy. To be honest, I hate running, but I enjoy the idea of trying to conquer something that you hate.”
As daunting as the dribble marathon will be, the hardships faced by the people McCarty has worked with in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, for the last three summers are astronomically more difficult and soul-crushing.
Because of hundreds of years of political exploitation and repeated natural disasters, that was the case in Haiti even before the 7.0 earthquake in 2010 killed almost a quarter of a million people and left over a million — in a country of 10 million — homeless.
In the summer of his senior year at Baptist Bible, McCarty went to Haiti to do mission work, mostly odd jobs, at the orphanage in Port- au- Prince, then went back the following summer.
“You just do what they needed,” he said. “One day, I was changing doorknobs; another day, I was actually in there helping with the kids.”
This summer, a husband and wife from his church who are Second Mile Haiti board members encouraged McCarty, instead of going back to Port au Prince, to join them on a visit to the facility that is being built by this young organization in Cap Haitien in the north part of the country.
Orphanages can serve a vital purpose, but what McCarty discovered at Second Mile Haiti, founded less than a year ago by recent college graduates Amy Syres and Jenn Schenk, took the grind of poverty aid to another crucial dimension.
Second Mile Haiti is attempting to dovetail the daily grind of its childcare work with aftercare education so that mothers and their young children can sustain themselves once they leave. The goal, by extension, is to preserve families.
“Families are getting ripped apart,” McCarty said. “The problem you run into frequently at orphanages is families give their kids away because they couldn’t afford them, or they didn’t even have the know-how to take care of their kids. Rather than see them suffer, they give their kids away.”
McCarty sees Second Mile Haiti’s effort as a means of chipping away at the greater problem that has plagued Haiti, where one in 12 children dies before the age of 5.
The country has received massive amounts of aid in the form of money, food and supplies, but rarely has anyone actually buttressed the people’s innate ability to create those things for themselves, he said.
“What these countries didn’t realize was that they were creating a dependence,” he said. “Instead of putting a Band-Aid on the problem, Second Mile Haiti is trying to get under it and fix the problem at the root.”
That means that mothers who bring their kids to the Second Mile Haiti compound and its clinic are also required to participate in small business programs to learn how to manage money, perhaps start a storefront business or a small subsistence farm.
The hope is that there will be a viral effect when these women take these skills back into the surrounding community, where the poverty is essentially institutional, and teach other families.
“It’s empowering them rather than just helping them,” McCarty said.
“I don’t know how people view a Third World country, but, for me, I really didn’t understand it until I saw that people are born into this, and it’s not their fault. And they’re bright, they’re brilliant.”
Through practice, McCarty has found that the best way to synchronize his two athletic tasks into a walk-and-chew-gum motion is by using a crossover dribble with each step to maintain a balanced rhythm.
There is symmetry in other places, too.
The man who will run 26 miles with a basketball cited a figure — 26,000 — signifying the number of children in the world who die from starvation and preventable diseases “every day, from the time you went to sleep last night, to the time your head hits the pillow tonight.”
“So that’s not an accident,” he said. “I heard that and thought, ‘This is ridiculous.’ Obviously, Haiti is a small part of that. But you can’t try to tackle 26,000 kids dying a day by just going at it. You’ve got to pick a spot and say, ‘I’m going to help in this area.’ ”
Matt McCarty has picked his spot, and if you want to help, you’ll find it on the donate button at www.secondmilehaiti.com. He also posted a press release with background about his marathon attempt at www.dribbletheworld.com.
In the meantime, McCarty’s alarm clock is set for 4:30 a.m.
The snooze button is sitting this one out.