From Golf to Basketball, YOC Alumnus Sam Waterstone Has the “Shooting Touch” - Youth on Course

From Golf to Basketball, YOC Alumnus Sam Waterstone Has the “Shooting Touch”

What do a small village in Rwanda and basketball have to do with Youth on Course? To find out, let’s hear from Sam Waterstone, a YOC Alumnus, scholarship recipient and now Director of Marketing & Development Fellow at Shooting Touch Rwanda. Shooting Touch Rwanda provides access to basketball, health care, education, and gender equity programs for youth and women in five rural communities in Rwanda’s Eastern Province. Sam is working to use sports to make positive changes in the world.

Sam knows first hand of the importance of sports for young people – he grew up playing many sports, including golf. “My grandparents lived on a golf course, so my first experience with golf was playing with my grandpa, uncle, and brother. While baseball and basketball became my passions as I got older, I continued to enjoy golf and appreciate the unique intensity and focus that one must have to be a successful golfer.”

Support from YOC Meant New Ideas and Inspiration

After spending his childhood immersed in sports, Sam had his sights set on a career in sport management. During his senior year of high school, he was accepted to UC Santa Barbara, and learned of YOC when applying for scholarships. Discovering YOC was profoundly significant for Sam’s future. “Out of the several scholarships I was awarded, the support I received from YOC was by far the most meaningful and impactful throughout my college career and life.”

Receiving the scholarship helped Sam financially, but also deeply inspired him from the beginning. At the scholarship award ceremony, Sam met his scholarship sponsor, David Baker, as well as Governor Gavin Newsom, a childhood hero of his. David’s son was an MLB player, and Gavin grew up in Marin County (near Sam) and played baseball in high school and college before becoming an inspirational politician. “Meeting those important figures and receiving recognition for my academic and extracurricular achievements gave me the confidence I needed to excel throughout college.”

Motivated to do great things, Sam became active in college. “In addition to other activities, I was very involved with the Black Studies Department. I studied abroad my senior year in Cape Town, South Africa. Here I interned with a nonprofit accelerator focused on the development of micro-entrepreneurs in impoverished communities. After this experience, I returned to Santa Barbara, completed my degree in Communication with an emphasis in Sport Management, and began my career in philanthropy.” 

It’s Not Necessarily About Golf, but it is about YOC

Receiving a YOC scholarship and learning about the organization’s mission reinforced the important role sports play in a child’s development.

“I studied sport management in college, and I work in the sport-for-development industry today. YOC inspired me all along the way. What I love about YOC is that it provides young people with recreational opportunities that help them build community and develop into healthy, successful people. Golf is undeniably a beautiful game and there are many lessons to be learned from it. Whether it’s baseball, basketball, tennis, or golf, as a society we need to increase access to free recreational opportunities for our youth, particularly for youth of color and kids from under-resourced communities. Throughout my life, I have found my identity, my passion, and my community through sport, and I believe every kid should have that same opportunity.”

The Perfect Way To Give Back

Guided by the desire to help kids and communities through sport, Sam set out to make a difference. “Ever since I left Cape Town, I wanted to find a way back to Africa and combine my passions for sport, philanthropy, and the continent. Basketball is my favorite sport and one of my favorite hobbies, and I had closely followed the rise of basketball in Africa. I knew that there were many organizations, including the NBA, contributing to the growth of the sport on the continent, and that some of them were also dedicated to using basketball to improve the lives of those in need. I was searching for an opportunity to transition from local philanthropy to international philanthropy. When I found Shooting Touch and their fellowship program, I knew it was a perfect fit.”

Using the values taught by YOC to be an agent of change in our world

Sam is excited to make an impact in his role as Director of Marketing & Development Fellow.  “At Shooting Touch Rwanda, we run many programs, including competitive basketball leagues. We also offer free health insurance and routine health screenings, and provide education around health, female empowerment, gender-based violence. Basketball is the heart of what we do, but it’s really the tool that we use to improve the quality of life for Rwandan children and women.”

Looking forward to growth in our post-COVID world

Like the rest of the world, the pandemic caused interruptions in programming at Shooting Touch Rwanda. “COVID-19 has been a huge challenge for our work. Rwanda’s response efforts have been very successful – more than 50 percent of the population is fully vaccinated (including all of Shooting Touch’s beneficiaries), compared to a rate of just about 8 percent for the continent as a whole. Part of their response included strict regulations around contact sports in public spaces, and while these rules have kept the public safe during the pandemic, the prohibition of contact sports meant that basketball – the tool at the heart of Shooting Touch’s health and equity-focused programs – was completely eliminated for almost two years. When I arrived in Kigali on January 10, basketball was still banned, and Shooting Touch courts were empty. I had no idea when the regulations might shift in our favor, and I was unsure how my fellowship would proceed without the ability to play sports. Then, miraculously, our whole situation changed. On a random Thursday morning during the final week of January, the Rwandan government released a statement announcing that due to the effectiveness of their COVID-19 restrictions, contact sports could return, provided certain COVID-19 safety protocols be followed. The Shooting Touch team quickly sprang into action. We held our first practices at all five of our courts in early February 2022.”

 

Restrictions lifted, the future looks hopeful

“So far, our fellowship team of four has focused on getting women and children safely back on the court. We’ve successfully created a registration system to check proof of vaccination status, facilitated the refurbishing of our courts, trained our 15 local coaches on safety protocols, and met with local partners and government leaders. I’ve already built great relationships with some of our Rwandan staff. I get so much joy from meeting and playing with our beneficiaries when I attend practices or health and gender equity lessons. Next week, we’ll hold our first event since the beginning of the pandemic, which will focus on Gender-Based Violence Awareness and Non-Communicable Disease Testing. We also plan to build a new court this year and develop a new Shooting Touch community.”

Today’s Success Thanks to the YOC Family

Sam credits YOC for his current success and drive to build a better world.

“Gaining the support of the YOC family was a really important moment for me as a young man. I was about to graduate high school and go off to college, with a dream to one day work in the sports industry and make a big impact in the world. I’ve always been passionate about sports and helping others – YOC showed me that it was possible to combine both of my passions into a career. When I first met Michael Lowe, I was so impressed with his demeanor, professionalism, his passion for sports, and his ability to connect with young people. Later on, I met David Baker, and witnessed his love for YOC, his generosity, and his wisdom. Knowing that those role models believed in me, that the organization believed in me and other kids like me, was huge for my self-confidence and belief in myself. As I continue in my career, my goal is to instill confidence in young people through sport and to be a role model for kids who want to use sports to make the world a better place. I want to be what Michael, David, and YOC were for me.”

Advice for Young Golfers and Athletes

“I think golf, and sport in general, is such a powerful force for building community and creating social change. It has a unique ability to transcend culture, gender, socioeconomic status, or geographic location. My advice to YOC golfers and coaches is to continue to spread your love of the game as far and wide as you can. Once you are part of the YOC family, you are in it for life, and if you have the opportunity to pay it back to the next generation, I hope you do so. YOC is now in all 50 states and has a model that is effective in creating access to a sport that has been traditionally inaccessible to a huge percentage of young people in the United States. I believe in the YOC’s mission and the people behind their impactful work, and I can’t wait to see how they continue to grow.”

To learn more about Sam’s work with Shooting Touch Rwanda, click here.