In 2020, the South 6th Street basketball courts were nothing short of a public wasteland. The hoops were in ruins, some of which seemed ready to topple over, and the grass seemed to seep out of the pavement.
But since the court's renovation and dedication in October, kids have flocked to the area for pick-up games and free meals.
Mentoring the kids that come to the park has always been a goal for Joshua Spaulding, founder of Spaulding Sole Savers. Having five minutes of positive connection on the court can create positive paths into adulthood.
"I'm born and raised in Lebanon ... For me, I didn't have anybody that looked like me to give me a five-minute conversation to change the next five years of my life," the 27-year-old said. "My goal is just to tap in with as many young bucks as I can to get them to know, 'Hey you have options, you have chances and you have a choice."
But the organizers of the renovation are looking to provide more of a service for the kids and get the most out of basketball court the community came together to build.
"We raised $100,000 and built the courts, and we kind of took it from there to say, 'Maybe we could do something more,'" said Mark Sevco, president of UPMC Hospitals. "It just lead to, 'Let’s try a basketball camp. Let's try to connect and create this safe haven for kids to be in a safer environment, lean on sports (and) be around good people and mentors."
On Aug. 10-12, the association is hosting the first Joseph P. Sevco Jr. Basketball Camp from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Officials say the camp is geared toward teaching young students from the 3rd through 8th grade the fundamentals of basketball, life skills and the importance of hard work.
"We never had a facility to do a camp, because we had one court, and it was just an odd size," said Sharon Zook, the South 6th Street Playground Association President. "But this will be the first one."
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On Friday evening, Aug. 12, a 3-on-3 basketball tournament will be held from 7-10 p.m. Organizers said that teams are guaranteed to play three games if they show up, and there are games for both kids and adults without worrying about an entry fee.
"If they show up, sign-up, they'll play," Sevco said.
Sevco, who helped spearhead the court's renovation, will coach this camp with Scott Laicha and Veronica Fick.
"We're really looking forward to getting a tradition of supporting this annually," he said. "But it's our first and we are excited about it."
Sevco's dad, Joseph P. Sevco Jr., was an electrician at Met-Ed and was called into work for overtime one day after a drunken driver knocked over a pole. In a tragic accident, the then 12-year-old's dad was electrocuted and died.
Having a community oriented place to go made the difference for Sevco during a very difficult time in his life.
"For me the playground became a safe haven," he said. "A place for me to go where I was surrounded with kids who were very ambitious, or worked hard ... I'd go there every day."
Families and kids depend on the playground and the basketball courts as being their backyard, Zook said. The amount of people who are utilizing the park and the courts have compounded over the last year.
"It's very important to have cohesive neighborhoods, where our neighbors can meet each other (and) their kids can play together," she said. "Especially in today's world, where there's so many stressors and it's difficult just to live. This provides a space where people can come together and know each other."
The South 6th Street Playground Association operates day camp from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. with free lunch served to kids from noon to 1 p.m. from Monday through Friday until Aug. 12. All camp lunches have been fully funded through various sponsors, businesses, UPMC, churches and local organizations.
The association has had an average of 70 kids each week attending their summer camps. Within the first two weeks of the summer camps at the playground, the association served over 600 free lunches.
Yensen Crespo, 12, calls having the camps "refreshing," admitting that he enjoys having a place to play with his friends and having good food.
"You don't like staying inside for long, and when you go outside you can have so much energy," he said. "That's why I go here because there's a lot of people to play games and stuff."
During Sevco Basketball Camp week, the community is invited to a Potluck Picnic on Thursday evening, August 11 at 6 p.m. Spaulding Sole Savers will offer Back-to-School giveaways for the kids.
The playground underwent a $250,000 renovation in 2009 with funds from the state. The court has been around since the 1960s, with the upgraded designs by Nick Thorton of Steckbeck Engineering.
"The whole time we were doing these renovations, I was getting letters from all the people who would go back and say, ’When I was a kid, that's where I played,'" Zook said. "They are still talking about the friends that they made and still keep up with them today."
Organizers of the basketball camps and the 3-on-3 tournaments aren't looking to create the next NBA player. Rather the goal is to promote the fundamentals of the game, while giving kids, and adults, a greater sense of community.
"I definitely believe that coming together, and playing on the swings and going down the sliding board together ... is going to result in people having lifelong friendships and finding jobs because they are connected with people," Zook said.
Anyone looking for more information about the Sevco 3-on-3 Tournament or about the playground association by emailing Sharon Zook at email@example.com.
Matthew Toth is a reporter for the Lebanon Daily News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DAMattToth.
This article originally appeared on Lebanon Daily News: South 6th St. courts got a new life. Now, organizers want to do more