In his mind, Mark Crandall was already on his way to France, Brazil or Japan as he tore open the letter that said he was heading to Zimbabwe.
A junior at East Hampton High School, he had never even considered visiting Africa when he signed up for the local Rotary Exchange Student program, let alone a country that had just recovered from a civil war.
It was 1984. He was 15 years old — an ambitious, sporty kid from Amagansett who had his first business card by age 9 — about to embark on a trip that, he now recognizes, was a dance with fate and destiny.
“It was a pretty amazing experience and time to be in Zimbabwe, where there hadn’t been any foreigners for a really long time. It was a radical change from Amagansett,” Crandall recalled. “I had to wear a school uniform and was in the British school system in a public school, and I played on the basketball team. That’s where I gravitated towards. It was a place and a sport that made me feel comfortable, where I could make friends and find common ground.”
Years later, when he felt drawn back to Zimbabwe after studying sociology at the University of Vermont, he lived in the moment and got on a plane. When he saw how the country had changed — and how basketball had evolved — he gave into his instincts and trusted his entrepreneurial spirit.
When the light bulb went off, he didn’t flick the switch.
“I had been dying to get back over there to see my friends,” he said. “Being a little bit older and having just studied sociology, I was looking at Zimbabwe from a different lens. I went back to my school and got to play basketball again, and saw how even in that short amount of time how the game had really progressed.”
In 1995, he returned once again with basketball equipment donated by schools in the United States and began a summer day camp for local children, drawing in more than 170 kids that first year. Based on his local business — East Hampton Sports Camp — Crandall called his new initiative Hoops 4 Hope, building basketball teams and youth communities around the sport in Zimbabwe and South Africa.
“The majority of our kids are living in poverty situations, a lot of times with single parents. There’s a lot of unemployment, there’s a lot of alcoholism, and it’s traumatic,” Crandall said. “That’s where our sense of community and having that big brother, big sister — who’s your coach and mentor — consistent in your life on a regular basis. Hoops 4 Hope allows them to be a kid. It allows them to build their self-esteem and know that they’re not alone, and that they can work together to get through these life challenges.”
On the surface, the non-profit organization collects gear — sneakers, uniforms and balls — and ships it to youth basketball teams thousands of miles away from Crandall’s native Long Island. But overall, the mission sits close to home.
Using the game as a catalyst for social change, Hoops 4 Hope teaches life skills, leadership, resiliency and self-esteem — skills necessary for all young adults, but critical in countries where alcoholism, gangs, drug use and HIV run rampant, Crandall said.
“Once I was in a restaurant in Cape Town and a kid came out of nowhere — he was in a chef’s outfit — and he said to me, ‘You’re Mark, aren’t you?’” he recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he’s like, ‘Thank you for having that program at my school, who knows where I would have been if I hadn’t been on the basketball court every day.’
“All of the social ills around them are also trying to recruit them to be there, and basketball kept him on the straight and narrow. He owed everything to being in Hoops 4 Hope programs.”
Run almost exclusively by a team of “All-Star” coaches and “MVP” community volunteers, Hoops 4 Hope has partnered with over 75 schools, shelters and community groups in Africa, and reaches more than 10,000 children annually. They operate around the concept of “ubuntu,” or, “I am, because we are.”
“You see this often, where two kids are sharing a pair of sneakers,” Crandall said. “You’re like, ‘Why are you just wearing one shoe?’ And he’s like, ‘Well my buddy has no shoes, so I’m gonna let him wear the left one and I’ll wear the right one, and at least half our feet are covered.’ That’s the spirit of sharing and that ubuntu is really a way of life there.”
Hoops 4 Hope recently sent a 20-foot shipping container filled with supplies to the African teams, supported by local foundation goodcircle and Twin Forks Moving & Storage, which has given the organization free storage for a year. As word spreads, they receive supplies from across the country almost every day.
“This is a grassroots effort,” Crandall said. “For me, it was trusting not only when I got accepted to go to Zimbabwe, but being open to meeting people, to ideas and culture, and seeing where my experience went. Coming back from Africa after that first year and having met these amazing kids who were playing the same games as these American kids — but just needing some of the basics to even play sports — seemed like a very simple challenge that I could help overcome. I thought I could help make a difference in these communities, and there have been so many people who have helped along the way.”
He paused. “The fact we’re still doing what we’re doing, after 23 years, is testament to the sacrifice and commitment that’s been made by so many people. We’ve raised over $2 million that we’ve invested in these programs. We’ve been able to build something that is really making a huge difference in so many lives.”
For more information about Hoops 4 Hope, visit hoopsafrica.org.