When Kate Kelley ’06 took the court for her second season with the Bentley women’s basketball team, she was determined to bounce back from a disappointing freshman year.
“I had played less than a minute,” Kelley remembers. “Coach Stevens said, ‘Make me play you. If you’re good enough, you’ll play.’”
She stepped up to the challenge, and finished her career as co-captain of a Falcons team that was ranked nationally.
Determination and basketball are again in play for Kelley’s latest endeavor: helping youth in Rwanda to heal after a decade of genocide.
The mission took shape as the former Marketing major reeled from 12-hour days at her first job, in venture capital. To recharge, Kelley planned a three-month break in Africa, which she had dreamed of visiting since childhood.
The two-day trip to reach the Rwandan capital of Kigali transported Kelley a world away from New England.
“I’m six feet tall,” she says. “My hair is bright orange. I sort of stand out.”
Kelley found housing with five roommates, two of whom worked for a grassroots movement called the As We Forgive Rwanda Initiative (AWFRI). The group seeks to build reconciliation among survivors of the brutality that claimed an estimated 800,000 lives in the country during the 1990s. AWFRI staffers engage local residents in activities that foster practical and long-lasting ties – home building and income-generating projects, for example. Or basketball.
Inspired to add some volunteer work to her vacation, Kelley launched “Ubumwe.” The initiative, which adopts the Rwandan word for unity, introduces the sport to Rwandan youth.
“These kids are still judging each other based on who their parents are,” explains Kelley, who also helped AWFRI create a professional business plan to get its efforts off the ground. “If they get on the court together, if they start to know each other as teammates, they’ll form relationships where they don’t care what their parents did.”
Helping Kids be Kids
The alumna’s “three-month” visit to Africa lasted twice that. Last February, she ran a pilot program for 95 street children, teaching the basics of the sport, teamwork and more.
“They don’t have dreams of playing in the NBA,” says Kelley. “They’re worried about eating, about things we take for granted. Using sports, we can give them an environment where they can play, where they can be kids and not think about what they have at home.”
Ubumwe has since teamed up with the Rwandan Ministry of Sports and Culture. Bentley, too, has pitched in, donating 70 basketballs through the women’s team.
Kelley credits her alma mater for the generosity – and for support on many fronts.
“Without my scholarship at Bentley, I would not have been able to do this,” she says. “I’ll be broke when I get home, but I won’t be in debt.”
Last June, Kelley returned to Hull and worked on fundraising and awareness building for Ubumwe, while two staffers handled things back in Rwanda. She went back to Africa in November to lead a more extensive clinic for prospective coaches and parents; the goal is to hand the reins to the people whom the program serves.
“I hope that in five years, people won’t even know I did it,” she says of Ubumwe. “I just noticed something that I thought would be helpful, and developed it along."
For more information on Ubumwe, or to make a donation, visit www.ubumwebasketball.org.