VANCOUVER, Wash. — A Vancouver couple is trying to make the world a better place, one basketball court at a time.
Their nonprofit is called Courts for Kids. For the past 12 years, Selene and Derek Nesland have led 3,500 volunteers to small villages in 29 countries, where they all pitch in to build outdoor basketball courts.
“We always hire a local contractor and local skilled workers and we just take the direction from them. And they know what they’re doing far better than we do,” said Selene.
Both the volunteers from the U.S. and members of the village raise funds to pay for the court. This summer, the group will build its 200th court.
It all began with an email sent to a mass list that included Derek—asking for help finding a basketball team that would play a game in the Philippines.
Derek, who is 6-foot-6, used to play for Portland State University. He played semi-pro basketball to travel and see the world. He has since retired and was a youth counselor for teens in the Vancouver area when he got the email.
“To this day I don’t know why I responded the way I did but I responded to that email saying—what about a basketball court?” Derek remembered.
His response went to the entire Filipino basketball association and three villages said yes, please come. They took teens on the first work party trip and word spread mainly through local Peace Corps volunteers. Suddenly, several more villages wanted courts.
Which gave Derek an idea.
“Derek came to me and said, I think I want to leave my job and start a nonprofit doing this for a living,” said Selene.
She was not impressed.
“And I looked at him, and I was holding our infant child and I said, all I heard was quit our jobs. Do you see this infant we are holding? We are now parents with responsibilities. I don’t know if we can do this. So, I was not immediately on board," she said.
But over time, Selene changed her mind and agreed with Derek to give it everything they had for two years.
If it failed, she reasoned, they could always move in with Derek’s parents.
“So, I just said 'Dear, God, I don’t want to live with his parents, so…'"
“Lovely people no doubt,” I suggested.
“Oh my gosh! I love my in-laws. They really are great!” she insisted.
“But no one wants to live with the in-laws,” I said.
“But nobody wants to live with them!” she agreed.
“So, I was like we got to make this all work. So I was all in,” Selene said.
And Courts for Kids was born.
Their Christian faith played a big role in shaping the nonprofit, although it is not religious.
“So, I think that’s been a key motivator,” said Derek.
“And I think what its done is shown us that really, everybody has dignity. There’s dignity in human life no matter where you are in the world and I think that’s been a drive for us and it's shaped how we go about doing what we do,” he added.
Selene’s college training focused on being a pastor in a church. She got a master’s degree in theology.
“My degree fingerprints are all over Courts for Kids. Why we do what we do. Our philosophy, our methodology are a lot of things I learned in seminary,” she said.
“So, I’m not a pastor, but that education I received has been huge in shaping, you know, our culture around here,” she added.
Courts for Kids takes applications from rural villages who want volunteers to come help with a court. The volunteers often sleep in homes of villagers and work side by side with them mixing concrete, building forms and pouring the court. At the end of the week, there is a celebration on the new court complete with basketball hoops, regulation rims brought in from America and nets.
When a court is finished being built there are new friendships and satisfaction.
“Usually, it’s just relief. Because it is exhausting. I mean our projects are all hands-on deck so by the time you are pouring that last strip, like everyone is spent,” said Derek.
They return home to Vancouver and begin planning the next trip.
To learn more, check their website.