For three Wilton High School seniors, their love of basketball and desire to help others took them to an unlikely locale this past summer:  Belfast, Northern Ireland. As co-presidents of the Full Court Peace Club at the high school, Liam Gany, Matt Olson and Kyle Maatallah spent a week there in July with Mike Evans, the founder of Full Court Peace, a non-profit organization committed to uniting diverse communities through basketball. Their goal was to try help some Catholic and Protestant kids bridge the divide between their two groups by encouraging them to play basketball together.

Belfast was where Evans was inspired to start Full Court Peace in 2006–while on a trip there, he observed the violent division between Catholics and Protestants. He assembled his first FCP team in Ireland with an equal number of Catholic and Protestant high school boys. He went on to bring the concept to other divided and underserved communities, including Havana, Cuba and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Full Court Peace also operates here at home in Fairfield County, uniting a racially and economically diverse array of local boys and girls in grades 4-8 through youth basketball leagues and camps. The philosophy is to use team basketball to increase communication, understanding and camaraderie among these youth, in an effort to help bridge the income and education gaps in a place where they are at their widest nationally.

As part of the initiative, Evans has developed Full Court Peace clubs at high schools throughout Fairfield County. Started just three years ago, the WHS chapter launched with a community outreach project to replace the baskets and repaint the lines on the only public basketball court in Danbury at the Danbury Police Athletic League (PAL); the WHS members also volunteer as coaches at FCP’s summer basketball camps for economically disadvantaged Fairfield County kids.

Past international efforts have seen Wilton club members venturing as far as Cuba, where they worked with local residents to refurbish dilapidated basketball courts, and play together in FCP-sponsored tournaments and leagues.

For the weeklong Belfast trip last summer, the three Americans walked one and a half miles from their hotel to an outdoor basketball court to play pick-up games with Protestant and Catholic kids. The goal was to get each group to interact over the common ground of the court.

“When you’re playing basketball, you’re in the zone. You set aside your differences because you’re focused on the game. When you step out onto the court, you’re a team,” explains Matt.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out as planned. Although Evans had organized the games in advance with both the Catholic and Protestant communities, during this trip only kids from Catholic neighborhoods showed up. But at least the Wilton boys were able to spend time getting to know their Irish peers.

“The trip was a real learning experience for us,” says Liam, one of the co-founders of the Wilton FCPC. “Seeing the walls that divided Catholic from Protestant neighborhoods was kind of a shock. We studied the divisions in Northern Ireland in history class, but seeing it first hand was so powerful. It’s strange to think that Catholic kids grow up not knowing or interacting with Protestant kids.”

The boys reported that the Irish kids were interested in playing basketball, even though it’s not a sport they’re as familiar with as kids in the U.S. “It was clear they were having fun,” notes Kyle, “despite the fact that the court we played on was in poor condition. The surface was cracked and the backboard was made out of flimsy plastic, making it more difficult to shoot baskets, but we brought over a bunch of new basketballs, and handed out water bottles and basketball jerseys.”

The WHS Club is planning a fundraiser later this fall to raise money to further the organization’s mission of bringing communities together.

“We’re going to hold an NBA 2K tournament. Anyone can enter, but they will have to pay a fee to play. We’ll be promoting it through the Wilton High School messaging system,” says Kyle. They’re encouraged by the success of last year’s fundraiser, a free-throw shot contest, which surpassed their initial $1,500 goal and reached $5,000. They put that toward refurbishing the Danbury court.

The boys agree that being involved in Full Court Peace has enabled them to turn their passion for basketball into a way of doing good. “We all love basketball, and it’s a really great feeling to be able to help support Full Court Peace’s mission,” says Matt. “We’re spending our time helping communities through a game that we love,” adds Kyle.

For the three of them, working with Mike Evans has also been inspirational. “He’s a great mentor and coach, and it’s been an honor to work with him,” says Liam. “We encourage anyone interested in the Club, which meets every other Thursday, to contact us. You don’t have to play basketball to be part of this club, but it does help if you love the game.”

photo (above):  Full Court Peace co-presidents (L-R) Kyle Maatallah, Liam Gany and Matt Olson