Mikayla Schaaf Writer & Photographer
In August 2015, the doors opened in the evenings at the Mille Lacs Band District 1 Community Center to participants who are interested in playing basketball. District 1 Representative Sandi Blake wanted a safe place for youth to come after school, so she used her Legislative Branch authority to create the evening basketball program. At first, only find a handful of players attended, but over the years it has grown into the hub of the community for teenage youth as well as adults.
Representative Blake hired evening staff to mentor youth through basketball. Quintin Sam, Joe Charette, and Mikayla Schaaf, who are all avid basketball players, facilitate open gym every evening from 5 to 9 p.m. On Thursdays, Mikayla cooks a hearty meal while the youth are playing basketball. Some nights the activities and food draw 25-plus teens to the drug- and alcohol-free environment of the community center.
The positive impact that this program is having within the community is immense. It is comforting for youth to know that this facility is open in the evenings so they have a safe place to go while enjoying sports and good food. The program has also been fortunate to attract mentors such as Mille Lacs Band member Robert Oswaldson, who not only brings a lot of humor and motivation to the court, but also has college-level experience in playing basketball. “Open gym helps youth by giving them some- where to go to enjoy their time while doing something positive with a group of friends,” said Robert. “There are minimal things for groups of friends to do around here unless they have a car. Everyone who goes to open gym always gets welcomed and treated with respect from the group of adults and youth who go to the gym.” Through basketball, Robert has learned the fundamentals and values of life. It has taught him respect and humility. “I feel open gym helps kids build positive characteristics; most importantly, basketball is my reason to live, right behind my family,” Robert added. “There isn’t a day I do not do, watch, or listen to something basketball related.”
Mille Lacs Band member Joe Charette, who has been very active in mentoring youth at the community center, is dedicated to improving the skills of the players on the court. “It feels great to think I’m a good influence and somebody they can look up to,” said Joe. “I learned that all it takes is one good person to change a youth’s life. As long as they know they can come to gym and that I’ll be there to play ball, I’m proud to say I can do that. I always tease and give the kids a hard time, but that’s how I was raised in my family. I remember I used to like being cracked on by the older guys, so that’s what I do. I also like our trio of workers we got here. Whenever one of us isn’t here, the kids always won- der where we are, and I think it is good to show them how to have healthy friendships as adults.”
Mille Lacs Band member Semira Kimpson, who has shown dedication to Mille Lacs Band youth as District I program coordinator, is very supportive in keeping consistency and stability to make sure the show goes on. “I think it’s a great idea,” Semira said. “I like that kids can come to a place where they like to hang out and that is safe for them.”