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Hoops on the Hill: Bridge Between High Street and Plandome Road

The opening prayer by Diamond Mason set the tone for what was to come. A heart-warming ceremony April 5 at the Manhasset/Great Neck EOC Hagedorn Community Center celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Hoops on the Hill program. Ms. Mason prayed aloud, “Thank you for ‘Hoops’ every Tuesday and just having a place for people to come where they can be in the comfort of people who care about them.”

Hoops on the Hill provides opportunities to youth from the neighboring communities of Manhasset and Great Neck to realize their full potential academically, socially, emotionally and spiritually. The program began five years ago, the result of a small community group project of Shelter Rock Church on Plandome Road, to provide weekly basketball instruction to boys and girls 5-18 years of age. That first night, 19 children participated; they now serve 82. As more and more children participated, Hoops on the Hill has responded to needs beyond basketball and serves as a “bridge between High Street and Plandome Road.”

Introducing guest speaker Yale Soccer Coach Brian Tompkins, Steve Leondis, founder and Executive Director of Hoops on the Hill, referred to him as “now part of the Hoops family.” Tompkins was an inspired choice as speaker, delivering a message of how individuals surface in one’s life periodically and provide direction. Tompkins provided examples from his own early years. People came into his life, he told the children, and he had a choice to listen, or not; and to act, or not. Tompkins explained that he grew up in a situation probably not unlike some in the audience, and knew the importance of having a mentor.

Brian Tompkins has been at the helm of the Yale soccer program for 15 years and has firmly established the Bulldogs as one of the most successful programs in the Northeast. No coach in school history has won as many games in his first 14 years. Eight of his players at Yale have gone on to play professionally.

In closing, Tompkins told the children how grateful he was for the mentors in his life and that now “I get to be the guy that gets to do what other people did for me. To give people choices and opportunity; encourage them to make choices that will affect their lives in very positive ways.”

Coach Tompkins said of the Hoops on the Hill program, “I see in this program what I want to be professionally and what I want to be personally. I promise to come back. It is a privilege to be described as part of the Hoops family.”

The Children’s Choir, under the leadership of Heather Olsen, was begun in 2009 as a collaboration between Adventures in Learning and Hoops on the Hill. The 12 enthusiastic and talented children entertained the standing room only crowd.

Another program begun in 2009, the academic support program, assists students from grades 7-12 every Thursday at the EOC center. Five professional tutors are available to the students. Founder Steve Leondis asked, “How do you put a price on a student who couldn’t graduate from high school without passing the Regents Exam and used the tutors available in this program for three months—and she is going to graduate. How do you put a price on that?”

A year ago Peter Pagonis from Louie’s Manhasset Restaurant on Plandome Road offered to help and now provides a weekly meal in the EOC cafeteria for children who sometimes have to skip dinner. The Thursday meal is accompanied by baked bread and dessert provided by Leonetti’s Bakery on Glen Cove Road in Greenvale.

Angel Branch was acknowledged for her untiring efforts on behalf of the children, as was Rob Keizer. Mr. Leondis credited students Tori Branch, Shonae Bucknor and Nyasia Irby for being part of the backbone of the organization. Diana Holden, Adventures in Learning, was also acknowledged. Yvette Davis, youth director, had her hands full keeping the children moving in the right direction as each received his/ her award of a “Hoops” sweatshirt.

Legislator Judi Bosworth had the honor of presenting the third annual “Bright Light” award to Gary Tibbs, Manhasset High School senior, who has earned a four-year scholarship to Trinity College in Connecticut. Hoops on the Hill presented him with a $2,000 financial award toward his college expenses. Gary, a star on the MHS Varsity Basketball team, was proud to see his coaches at the ceremony.

Legislator Bosworth said, “I was honored to present the ‘Bright Light’ award to Gary. He is being acknowledged for his hard work, enthusiasm and commitment to the Hoops on the Hill program. His success serves as an inspiring example of what can be accomplished while working in a supportive environment with good friends and mentors.”

Bosworth also noted that the pride and love in the room was reflected in Steve Leondis’ face. “Each year when I come to this program,” she said, “It just expands, gets larger. And that doesn’t just happen by itself; it happens because we are a community and are here to work together.”