Hoops for Hope expands to raise more money for families

Nicole Becker, business manager

Through the multiple rounds of chemotherapy that caused unending heartache, the family couldn’t bear it anymore. Costs continued to pile with treatment after treatment, and the family’s insurance company just couldn’t cover everything, leaving the parents to drown in the emotional and monetary cost of their child’s cancer. However, the simple arrival of a check presented the family with a beacon of hope — hope that caused them to break down with tears of joy.

“For patient privacy, I’ve never been allowed to be there [when the families receive money], but they send back emails with quotes from the family,” Hoops for Hope founder and science teacher Chris Jenson said. “I think the comment I’ve heard year after year that they have said is, ‘What a wonderful thing for people to love us this much,’ and I’ll never forget it. It’s such a simple phrase. We’ve heard five or six families now say [that], and it’s really cool to work in a school with students that do love people that much.”

As an instructor at the Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS), Jenson started Hoops for Hope in 2011 with a group of 21 students looking to start a fundraiser that would benefit families dealing with pediatric cancer. While the students were browsing the Internet to see what type of events were already in Kansas City, Jenson mentioned an event that happened at his alma mater, Notre Dame, called “Bookstore Basketball.” The event featured a variety of students dressed up in costumes to raise money and play at a basketball tournament, regardless of skill level. The group decided to run with the idea, and soon, Hoops for Hope became a reality as a fundraiser to help families at Children’s Mercy Hospital that were struggling to pay for treatment of pediatric cancer.

“I think [it was most difficult] getting the word out — just describing to people what the event was supposed to be,” Jenson said. “I feel like right now, Southwest has an excellent handle that this is about hanging out with your friends and doing something meaningful for kids fighting cancer, but initially, people were trying to figure out if this was a basketball tournament or a fundraiser or what exactly it was.”

After starting in 2011, the event continued to grow with more participants and more money raised, but this year, Hoops for Hope anticipates more growth than ever before — growth sparked by a spontaneous phone call from ESPN announcer Dick Vitale.

Vitale hosts an annual gala and is actively involved with the V Foundation, an organization created by former basketball player and coach Jim Valvano, who was a victim of cancer. Valvano founded the V Foundation in 1993, and it has raised over $130 million to go toward cancer research. After seeing a video produced for Hoops for Hope in 2014, Vitale decided he wanted to get the V Foundation involved. So, a couple months after Hoops for Hope 2014, Jenson received a phone call at his house from Vitale, in which he asked if Jenson wanted help with making Hoops for Hope big.

“I really, honestly thought it was my brother prank calling me, but I was very excited when I realized it was actually [Vitale],” Jenson said. “My true reaction was that I was just really proud of our students. I mean, I think he understood right away that this is a student-run, student-driven event, and its success is because of the students at Southwest. I just felt really proud — like this is our school, and it got noticed by someone at ESPN because our students are amazing.”

Vitale’s involvement resulted in Hoops for Hope registering as a nonprofit organization and a partnership with the V Foundation. This year, Hoops for Hope will donate half of its proceeds to the V Foundation while the other half remains assisting families at Children’s Mercy. Although Hoops for Hope is partnering with a large organization, Jenson assures that it remains loyal to Children’s Mercy because it has established a relationship with the patients there, and the fact that the hospital is local allows students to know exactly where their money is going.

“I have really close connections with Children’s Mercy just because I’ve been a patient there, but, also, I’ve met and been close with a lot of the cancer patients,” senior Hoops for Hope chair Megan Price said. “It’s actually a way of getting to meet someone. Instead of just saying, ‘Oh I raised money and donated it here,’ you actually get to meet the cancer patients and meet their families, and it’s really cool to actually get feedback and stories instead of just saying, ‘Here’s $1,000; I hope this helps.’”

In an effort to spread the event, Blue Valley High and Blue Valley West decided to bring Hoops for Hope to their schools for the first time as well. BV High, BV West and Southwest have created a competition among the students to see which school can fundraise the most, host the most participants and receive the most Twitter followers for their individual accounts. The competition has created an alternate motivation to get more people involved.

“Our school normally gets hyped up about these things, and we knew that with anything we bring to our school, we kind of get really into it,” senior BV High Hoops for Hope chair Bella Carpenter said. “With people who are competitive, they’ll be like, ‘I want to win,’ or, ‘I want to raise the most money,’ so they’ll think that’s cool.”

The three schools will host the preliminary rounds of the tournaments at their individual gyms, but everyone participating in the tournament will conjoin in the Southwest gym on Nov. 12 for a finals night where the best teams from each school will face off. The finals night will be filled with guest speakers, a lip-sync battle and an appearance from a handful of local celebrities. Some of the celebrities include Sporting Kansas City players Matt Besler and Jon Kempin, Chiefs representatives and likely a few University of Kansas basketball players.

“I hope [students] get recognition from people that they look up to,” Jenson said. “I mean, it’s kind of neat that you can be 16, 17, 18 years old and make a difference – and so much of a difference that athletes and celebrities take time out of their day to be like, ‘Yeah you know what, that’s cool. What a great bunch of young adults.’ So I hope most of all that the students are excited, and I hope most of all they feel appreciated because obviously these folks that show up on finals night, these celebrities, are very busy, but they’re choosing to take time out of their day because they think what our school is doing is meaningful.”

Along with spreading to other Blue Valley schools, Kansas State University hosted the event on Oct. 3 for college students under the direction of Southwest alumnus Nick Edwards. The event attracted over 130 participants to form 28 teams, and the entire Kansas State basketball team came to support on the players’ day off. The players of the basketball team judged the participants with the best costumes, which ranged from shower loofahs to hot dog suits, and $25 gift card prizes to Texas Roadhouse were awarded to the winning team. Although Edwards said it was challenging to spread the word about the event, Kansas State raised over $1,700 and Edwards said he hopes that Hoops for Hope will continue to spread to other universities.

“Schools can put their own little twist on it, but the ending goal  is to raise money for cancer research,  whether it’s at Children’s Mercy Hospital or the V Foundation,” Edwards said. “It’ll just be a lot of fun and cool to see it expand, especially since it started at Southwest.”

This year, Hoops for Hope aims to raise $40,000 to $50,000 among the efforts of Kansas State and the Blue Valley high schools. As the organization continues to grow over the next few years, Jenson said he hopes it can become an event comparable to Relay For Life, in which schools annually participate across the nation. Regardless, Jenson contributes the success of Hoops for Hope thus far to the students at Southwest and their hard work, and he hopes other schools can find that same success in order to make a difference throughout the country.

“We’re creating something incredible here, and it’s because of [the students’] hard work,” Jenson said. “There’s a chance that it may go far — I hope it does — and I’m proud that we’re doing it together. I’ll never understand why kids have to battle cancer, but I love that we’re fighting back.”