Senior Zayquan Warren and sophomore Isiaha Dickens, students at Holy Cross High School in Flushing, dream of playing in the NBA. Senior Kimani Merchant, set to major in accounting at St. John’s University, wants to get his bachelor’s degree and make sure his mother, Louisa, doesn’t have to worry about paying her bills.
Elmhurst’s Jamani Fowler, a senior at Archbishop Molloy High School in Briarwood, like others, have more general aspirations.
“I just want to live a fulfilling life and try to impact as many people as I can,” he said.
Ryan Washington, a senior at Holy Cross, measures success by being able to provide for his family.
While their hopes and desires differ, the four student-athletes have something in common: They are among many in New York City and Long Island who have benefitted from the Rising Stars Youth Foundation. Founded in 1996, today the nonprofit organization helps about 350 boys and girls in grades three through 12 participate on various basketball teams, which travel to regional and national tournaments.
The seven teammates who joined amNY for an interview Friday became involved with Rising Stars as middle-schoolers. They recalled their travels to compete on courts in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida and California, to name a few.
Those experiences have helped shape the teenagers, according to Dan Gimpel, 43, a former member of Rising Stars and the program’s executive director since 2007. He graduated from Holy Cross in 1993 and went on to receive a scholarship from Adelphi University on Long Island, where he set the school’s single-season records for assists and steals.
“Being able to travel the world and meet new friends and go to different places using basketball as a passport and education as a platform, it really kind of put structure in my life,” he said of the organization.
And Rising Stars has grown considerably over the years, Gimpel noted. With help from donors and several fundraisers — like its 17th annual gala in Manhattan on Tuesday — it aids families in need by providing financial assistance to cover basketball program fees and costs. In addition to the competitive teams, it also offers to children and teens personalized instruction, year-round camps and clinics.
Off the court, the nonprofit is currently providing nearly 40 students with high school scholarships, Gimpel said, and the Rising Stars Scholars Program gives academic and personal support, mentorship, and advice toward college and career preparedness. Rising Stars has placed more than 500 students in colleges and universities across the country, according to its website.
The dedicated staff, which puts education first, is to thank for the organization’s success, Gimpel said. “It’s a family,” he noted. “Everybody looks out for each other. Everybody cares.”
“Leveling the playing field to us means I am treating these students, these athletes, these children, as if they are my own,” said Emily Ades, Rising Stars’ director of education. As many of the students went through tough times during their high school years, she added, “We never wavered on the standards that we held them to.”
Elijah Perry joined Rising Stars in fifth grade, and his parents, Alsina and Willis, have helped assist the organization and its student-athletes over the years. He received a scholarship to Holy Cross, and will graduate on June 1. There’s no hiding from the support system, he said, whether it’s his mom and dad, Gimpel, Ades, or his coach, Omar Atkinson Sr., who regularly check in with him and his teammates.
“They know about my grades before I know about them; I don’t even know how that’s possible,” Elijah said with a smile. “Without the support, I don’t even know where I’d be.”
He has garnered a 102 grade-point average at Holy Cross. “That’s not a GPA, that’s a fever,” Ades quipped, as the players laughed. Elijah plans on a year of prep school and has an offer to play basketball from Ryder University, which he is still considering.
“When you don’t think they’re watching, they’re watching,” Kimani added about Rising Stars’ staff, which he said has motivated him to always give 100 percent and has helped him reach the honor roll for the last four years.
Omar Atkinson Jr., of East Elmhurst, is set to attend the State University at Fredonia, on his way to fulfilling a dream of becoming the first member of his family to graduate from college. Struggling with his grades at times in middle school and high school, he benefitted when Rising Stars helped him transfer from Energy Tech High School in Long Island City to Lawrence-Woodmere Academy, where he will graduate in the coming weeks.
“It changed my whole life around; it was a full 360,” Omar said. “By the change of environment … it gave me a push to do better.”
His father, who has coached him and his teammates since sixth grade, said he is proud of Omar, and all his players, whom he also considers sons. Atkinson Sr., raised by a single mother in East Elmhurst, said he never had support growing up from an organization like Rising Stars. He began coaching about 10 years ago as a way to help steer kids in the right direction.
“They walk around with their chest up and their head held high,” Atkinson Sr. said of his players’ confidence, which has steadily built over time. “They don’t really know it, but they’re all breaking generational curses of inner-city kids that just are not making it out because they don’t have the support.”
Through Rising Stars, the student-athletes also volunteer with community-based organizations on various initiatives, as some recalled handing out bags of food and other necessities to homeless people on the streets of Manhattan. Rising Stars also pairs their older students with younger ones for mentorship.
Though Ades said it would be difficult to watch this year’s high school seniors move on to the next chapters of their lives, she reminded the seven students gathered around her at a table in Holy Cross’s library that “the ball stops bouncing someday.” Whether they stop playing basketball this year or in a decade, she added, they will need the family values and education framework that Rising Stars has helped instill.
She expects the student-athletes to come back to the organization in the future and pay it forward to the next generation. “Rising Stars is a lifetime commitment,” Ades said. “We’re not letting go.”