Emeka Okafor, the 2003-04 National Player of the Year for the NCAA champion University of Connecticut basketball team, announced Sept. 27 that he will contribute $250,000 to the Neag School of Education to support the Husky Sport Program in Hartford.
The program uses UConn students as mentors in nutrition education and life skills lessons, as well as exposing the children to a variety of sports and physical activities. Operating at three locations in Hartford’s North End – Clark Elementary School, the Kelvin D. Anderson Recreation Center, and the Hartford Catholic Worker House – Husky Sport offers in-school, after-school, and summer activities.
The program was developed by Jennifer Bruening, an assistant professor in the kinesiology department in the Neag School of Education.
“Every child should have a mentor,” says Okafor.
“I am blessed to be able to help the Husky Sport program continue to enrich young people’s lives and make sure the children in this program not only have a mentor but are getting the tools they need to succeed in life. Nutrition and physical activity are the cornerstone of my life, and I feel strongly that young people should not only be educated about healthy living but they should have access to opportunities that help them lead healthy lives.”
University President Michael J. Hogan said, “Emeka Okafor represented UConn at its best throughout his years here, as an outstanding student, a spectacular athlete, and an engaged member and leader of the University community. It is gratifying but not surprising that he would step up to support this program. We’re tremendously proud of Emeka, and proud of the contribution the Neag School of Education is making through the Husky Sport program.”
Clark School Principal Beryl Irene Bailey said Clark students in the program have benefited tremendously and the program has changed lives.
She noted that during a visit to UConn last fall, some sixth grade students played ice hockey with the school’s team and attended a men’s basketball practice.
Third grade students also toured the campus, including the African-American Cultural Center and the Rainbow Center, and interviewed UConn students.
“The students at Clark now benefit from college mentors who provide life skills and lessons in nutrition and physical fitness,” she said. “The UConn students have gone above and beyond. They also tutor in academic subjects.
“Additionally, Clark students are exposed to positive examples of people they can emulate. In a neighborhood plagued by unemployment and illiteracy, this program serves as a metaphorical opportunity knocking on a door that will hopefully lead to our students’ enrollment in college and their enlistment in the metamorphism of their community.”
Bruening, who began the program four years ago, said the funds contributed by Okafor will be used to expand the program by increasing the number and variety of activities offered to the Hartford students and the quality and quantity of the time they spend with their UConn mentors.
The program at Clark includes UConn students who assist with physical education classes.
The Anderson Center focuses on pre-adolescent girls, Bruening said, because they often have less exposure to athletics and lack positive female role models.
Children at the Catholic Worker House also engage in arts and crafts. All the programs offer physical activities and lessons in nutrition.
One of the highlights each semester is a field trip planned by UConn students for children at all three sites.
The field trips introduce new experiences and physical activities to the children.
Past trips have included an overnight stay at UConn, attending a professional tennis tournament and receiving a free tennis racquet, and exposure to crew, lacrosse, ice skating, and other sports.
Bruening’s research examines the factors, including race, gender, access, economics, and exposure that limit the sport and physical activity opportunities of African American girls and women.
In addition, a new research initiative examines the effects of Husky Sport on the UConn mentors.
“The program benefits the children in Hartford,” she said, “but it also benefits the UConn students. It focuses them on what’s really important and what they believe about society.”
As a result of the program, some UConn students have changed career goals and entered education.
The gift, to be paid over five years to the University of Connecticut Foundation Inc., is Okafor’s first significant domestic donation.
He is also the spokesperson for the One Million African Lives initiative, which has pledged to save one million lives over the next five years in Africa by cleaning up the blood supply to prevent people receiving tainted blood in transfusions.
Okafor has partnered with the Safe Blood for Africa Foundation, which operates in 35 Sub-Saharan countries, and he spent two weeks in Africa this summer delivering test kits that ensure the blood is clean before a blood transfusion takes place.
A two-time Academic All-American, Okafor graduated from UConn in 2004 with a finance degree and a 3.8 grade point average after attending college for only three years.
He was the 2004 Academic All-American of the Year, and was the Big East Men’s Basketball Scholar-Athlete in 2004-05 and 2005-06.
Okafor was selected number two in the 2004 NBA draft by the Charlotte Bobcats, and was the 2004-05 NBA Rookie of the Year. He was also a member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic team.