Donation Takes Okafor’s Legacy Beyond UConn Sports Record Books

Former men's basketball player Emeka Okafor, with children at the Clark Elementary School in Hartford, after announcing his $250,000 gift to the Husky Sport program. In the back row, at left, is Lashika James, a paraprofessional at the school. Husky Sport, developed by kinesiology professor Jennifer Bruening, uses UConn students as mentors in nutrition and life skills, and encourages children to take part in sports and physical activities.
Former men's basketball player Emeka Okafor, with children at the Clark Elementary School in Hartford, after announcing his $250,000 gift to the Husky Sport program. In the back row, at left, is Lashika James, a paraprofessional at the school. Husky Sport, developed by kinesiology professor Jennifer Bruening, uses UConn students as mentors in nutrition and life skills, and encourages children to take part in sports and physical activities.
Former UConn men's basketball player Emeka Okafor with children at the Clark Elementary School in Hartford in 2007, after announcing his initial gift to the Husky Sport program. (Peter Morenus/UConn File Photo)
Former UConn basketball player Emeka Okafor with children at the Clark Elementary School in Hartford in 2007, after announcing his initial gift to the Husky Sport program. (Peter Morenus/UConn File Photo)

Celebrated NBA and former UConn basketball standout Emeka Okafor doesn’t just believe in the power of dreams, but in the importance of every young person having them – which is why he recently donated $100,000 to Husky Sport. His gift is an extension of an initial donation of $250,000 to the program in 2007.

Founded in 2003 by UConn’s Neag School of Education, Husky Sport provides children in Hartford’s North End with a broad range of in-school, afterschool, and weekend programs focusing on sports, physical activity, nutrition, academic enrichment, and life skills. The initiative is led by UConn faculty, staff, and student mentors, and conducted in partnership with the City of Hartford, several Hartford Public Schools and community agencies.

Okafor’s first gift allowed for the expansion in the number of trips per week UConn students could take to Hartford to participate in Husky Sport. Since 2007, Husky Sport has expanded its service learning course opportunities in Storrs, the number of UConn students involved in Husky Sport, and the number of programs operated in Hartford.

“These students engage in a curriculum on sport-based youth development in low-income neighborhoods, with a strong infusion of cultural competency education,” says Jennifer Bruening, associate professor of educational leadership and director of Husky Sport. “These students typically say that their experience with Husky Sport evolves from believing that they have something to give, to expressing that what they’ve given pales in comparison to how much they’ve learned from the class and their time with the kids in Hartford.

Husky Sport encourages kindergarteners to 12th-graders to become not just their best selves, but to believe in their best selves. Its school-day programs focus on academic success, while afterschool and weekend programs tackle topics as broad and essential as accountability, sportsmanship, conflict resolution, college preparation, and community pride.

“There are many avenues to success,” says Okafor, who was a No. 2 pick in the 2004 NBA draft, and graduated from UConn with a 3.8 GPA and bachelor’s degree in finance in just three years. “It’s OK if you don’t play for the Rockets. You can be a rocket scientist,” he says. “It’s OK if you don’t play for the Rams. You can be a veterinarian.”

It’s these kinds of ambitious, but attainable, dreams that Husky Sport encourages.

Benefits of the program include:

  • Improving the participants’ academic and physical abilities;
  • Working with mentors and peers;
  • Connecting with their community;
  • Applying the skills they learn from Husky Sport to all aspects of their lives;
  • Believing in themselves and their abilities.

Since its founding, Husky Sport has provided more than 100,000 hours of academic, health, and other support services to more than 1,500 Hartford schoolchildren. Among its many successes is the Read & Raise school-based reading program, which offers incentives to those who participate including extra recess time, healthy food parties, and trips to UConn.

Although the program has the potential to expand to other areas of the state, staff have purposely kept it focused on children living in the Clay Arsenal, North East, Blue Hills, and Upper Albany neighborhoods of Hartford’s North End.

“The goal is for the program to provide a concentrated and continuous presence, and to show youths – as well as their families – the successes and possibilities that can come from focusing on academics, personal and social growth, and healthy lifestyles,” says Bruening.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the program is when former participants become graduates of UConn or another college, Bruening says. For many of those involved, however, dreams of college are not the draw. Often, it’s the association with sports, particularly UConn sports, that gets kids initially interested.

“Sport is the initial bond, but then we use it as the common denominator to teach, bring people together, and to build positive, lasting relationships between people from very different lifestyles and backgrounds,” says Justin Evanovich, Husky Sport’s assistant director, who was Okafor’s teammate on the 2004 UConn NCAA basketball championship team.

“Since everything we do at Husky Sport involves collaborating with a school or agency in some way, there’s a lot of power sharing going on,” Evanovich adds. “We at UConn bring our strengths, the school or agency brings its strengths, and together we give the kids something really powerful to take away.”

The idea that every young person has the power and potential to become his or her best self is something Okafor also believes in, and that he hopes to encourage through his support of Husky Sport.

“Connecticut is a big part of who I am, and who I have become,” he says, “and I’m privileged to be able to help in any way.”

Information from a Hartford Courant story was used for part of this story.