CHENNAI, India – Putting smiles on the faces of children who are not as fortunate has always instilled a sense of self-pride. Doing it half a world away is even more gratifying. A pair of Chaminade University men’s basketball players experienced just that.
AJ Mathew and Kiran Shastri spent two weeks in Chennai, India, from June 29 to July 10 helping to teach children there about the values of education through teamwork, character and leadership, using basketball as the teaching tool in a country where cricket is the dominant sport.
The duo was part of the Crossover Basketball and Scholars Academy, a non-profit organization that helps expand education among Indian students. It is especially important in Chennai where 48 percent of the children drop out of elementary school and only seven percent graduate from high school.
“Crossover was literally the best of both worlds for me,” said Mathew, a senior guard this past season. “The impact of two things I have a strong passion for in: 1. Giving back; 2. Basketball was an opportunity of a lifetime.”
Over a dozen collegiate basketball players from across the United States – several who are of Indian-American heritage including Mathew and Shastri – traveled to India as voluntary instructors to over 500 children.
From left to right: Mathew, Shastri, Varun Ram (Maryland), Reggie Rydell, Sai Tummala (Hawai’i) and Crossover founder Shaun Jayachandran.
“It was a no-brainer for me to join Crossover,” Shastri said. “The fact that it uses basketball as a vehicle of change to teach educational values to under-privileged youths in India were my roots are is an opportunity and experience I couldn’t miss out on.”
Unlike in the U.S. where youth sports are viewed as an outlet for growth, sports is viewed as a distraction among the poor and impoverished families in India. Crossover emphasizes four pillars – character, teamwork, leadership and communication – that help kids succeed. In addition to basketball instruction, there were also yoga and classroom stations that helped to go into detail about how these four pillars work together to build a foundation for the future.
“The kids are everything,” said Mathew, whose trip to India was his third but first in 12 years. “They come from less fortunate homes where the family income is $1.40-1.60 U.S. per day. These kids don’t and aren’t given much in life.
“I have never been around such group that, in such little time, has impacted my life and the way I go about things,” he continued. “I am proud to say my jaw hurts from smiling so much with these kids and my hands and arms hurt from all the high-fives and hugs. That goes to show that the love and process of progress shared amongst us within our organization and the kids have been amazing.”
It was the second visit to India for Shastri, who was also amazed by their eagerness and enthusiasm. “These kids don’t have much in life, yet it doesn’t seem to affect their daily activities,” he said.
“It’s cliché to say these kids in two weeks have changed my perspective in life, but it’s true,” said Shastri, who will be a junior this upcoming season. “I’ve never been exposed to such true happiness and appreciation. The little things I’ve learned in two weeks from these kids are more influential in my life than some of the things I’ve been exposed to my whole life.”
Both also expressed pride being among the few of Indian heritage that plays intercollege athletics in the U.S.
“It was very unique and interesting for us to team up with fellow Indian-American collegiate athletes around the United States to give back to India, which is part of our makeup,” Mathew said.
Mathew and Shastri also expanded on their experiences in a blog on the Crossover website, which can be read below:
An Unexpected Education (July 8)