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Hoops for Haiti a Game Winner

By Joel Koch, 02/06/19, 4:00PM EST

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Hoops for Haiti is in its 10th year of raising funds. ~ Contributed Photo

When is a game bigger than just a game? That’s a loaded question, so consider a few possibilities… When everyone involved wins, regardless of the numbers on the scoreboard… When it serves a purpose greater than competition and positively affects people in need… When it is Rockford High School’s annual Hoops for Haiti game.

Yes, Hoops for Haiti is more than a night of high school basketball. It’s a night to raise funds and awareness to help the plight of our impoverished world neighbors. Organized by long-time Rockford educator Rachel DeKuiper, it features both the boys and girls varsity teams competing on the court, and family-fun off it with contests and a silent auction.

“The earthquake in 2010 (was the motivator) to put on the first Hoops for Haiti,” says DeKuiper. “At the time, I was teaching at Cannonsburg Elementary and had three young children at home. As a teacher and mom, I couldn’t imagine sifting through the rubble of fallen schools and homes looking for my children. During the earthquake, Haitians ran into their homes instead of out. They really didn’t even know what an earthquake was, despite being located on a major fault line. They thought the whole world was shaking. If only they had known. My heart was breaking for our neighbors in Haiti.”

In the days and weeks that followed the tragic incident, she began to find there was a group of colleagues feeling the same way. In conversations with other educators and research, it was discovered that education is a luxury in Haiti and very few students have the opportunity to go to school.

As the pull to help became stronger, she turned to her family as a support system. As they listened to her concerns, it started to fuel ideas on how to support the victims. Then it clicked… the head of her support system and Rockford assistant varsity basketball coach at the time were one in the same – her husband Ryan DeKuiper. Hoops for Haiti was born.

Hosting the 10th edition in 2019, it has raised $40,000 – an amount that goes a long way in Haiti. Financial support is just a portion of the story, though, as the event primarily funds a mission trip to Haiti each year.

“We have been working with the Haiti Foundation Against Poverty since 2010,” DeKuiper explains. “We represent the organization’s education team and focus on improving educational opportunities when we travel there each summer. We train teachers, supply resources, start educational programs, provide VBS to children in villages that don’t have the opportunity to go to school, serve in orphanages and provide humanitarian aid when needed.”

The Haiti Foundation Against Poverty was founded in 2007 by Mallery Neptune, a former Grand Rapids resident and graduate of Cornerstone University. According to DeKuiper, “The mission of the HFAP is to educate, equip, and empower the Haitian people by providing them with training and opportunities that are not readily available in Haiti. To support the organization’s mission they have medical teams, dental teams, skill training teams and our education team that travel to Haiti several times a year.”

Led by DeKuiper, the education team requires a lot of prep work in organizing training materials, translating curriculum and collecting the supplies needed to make the team’s projects a reality. It includes a mix of educators and students who make the trip to Haiti each year. Of those students, many have played in the annual Hoops for Haiti game, including former Ram basketball star Nate Anderson.

“I not only got to experience going to Haiti, but actually play in the game as well,” recalls Anderson fondly. “The Hoops for Haiti event is special for me because it’s a huge fundraiser for the people that go on the mission trip. If everyone contributed something small, the whole community can make a HUGE difference for hundreds of people."

“I went to Haiti thinking I was going to change others’ lives and make a difference to them, but they’re the ones that changed me and encouraged me to be a better person and strive to be the best version of myself. The thing I enjoyed the most was bringing a soccer ball to a small village and seeing the reaction of the kids’ faces when we played soccer with them. We took four tires that were lying in the street and set them up as goals and we played soccer with the kids and I’ve never seen a sport bring joy to so many people.”

Anderson is one of the many high-schoolers who have travelled on the trips to Haiti, which is a deep source of gratification for DeKuiper. She is quick to point out that they become invested in the island and some even return to complete internships there. They see the potential and the Haitian people and “just get it.”

In some cases, playing in the Hoops for Haiti game for the first time is a highly anticipated event. This is especially true for DeKuiper’s daughter Sami, who is a member of the Rams varsity squad this year. A volunteer for many of the previous nine nights, she joined her mom on a trip to Haiti in 2018 for the first time.

“It’s a special event for me because of the experience I had in Haiti this past summer,” she happily shares. “This is the first time I am playing for these kids. I’ve always volunteered at the event, working on set up and the different activities we have, but this year is going to be different. I am playing for the kids I love and care for and can name them by name. The relationships I have built with the most amazing people, this game is dedicated to them.”

Seeing fist-hand the poverty that her mother had been telling her stories about for many years truly affected Sami in a positive manner. Her experiences with Haitian orphans during last year’s trip gave her a greater appreciation for the money raised during the event.

“Haitians are constantly fighting poverty, from trying to keep up on personal hygiene to trying to find food and water to supply their family,” she reflects. “This game is going to mean so much more this year to me because I’m devoting this game to people who will be in my heart forever. Knowing that everything we raise is going to kids who I have met and now love.”

To get involved with Hoops for Haiti, fans can check out the Hoops for Haiti event page on Facebook, or email DeKuiper at rmdekuiper@rockfordschools.org. The night requires more than 50 volunteers and countless man-hours to be financially successful. Outside of the basketball event, fans are encouraged to contact HFAP at information@haitipoverty.org for details on how they can be a part of helping year-round. Or even locally, people are able to support Haiti by patronizing Espwa Boutique in downtown Rockford. Espwa which means “Hope” in Haitian Creole sells items made in Haiti by the women in the charity’s Gift of Hope program.

“Women will often show up at the doors of Hope House, HFAP’s orphanage, thinking they need to surrender their babies because they don’t have the resources to meet their needs,” explains DeKuiper, a member of the Espwa board of directors. “Gift of Hope provides these women with the support they need to provide for their families. They offer training opportunities and employment. These women ALWAYS would rather work and keep their children than give them up. Learning to sew, make jewelry and handle their finances allows them to do just that AND even send their kids to school.”

Be it through time, or dollar donations, DeKuiper concludes with her immense pride in the Rockford community and how it has embraced Hoops for Haiti, “Obviously when you have natural disasters people are initially called to help. This community has realized that there are ways we can support Haiti beyond responding to natural disasters. I appreciate that the basketball programs have embraced this as an annual event, not one that only takes place when responding to natural disaster. I would love for us to not need Hoops for Haiti someday because every child in Haiti is able to go to school and get an education.”