“Together We Can”: Camp teaches Walla Walla youth life lessons through play

Cole Anderson, Sports Editor

While the rest of the student body is either back at home or working a job or internship, each summer starting in 2009 the Whitman men’s basketball team has extended its collective hand out to the rest of Walla Walla in putting on its “Together We Can” (TWC) basketball camp. This past summer more than 200 children from the area laced up their basketball shoes and learned valuable lessons about life through basketball.

Led by head coach Eric Bridgeland and assistant coach Matt Airy, and funded entirely by local businesses, the two 4-day sessions aimed at developing leadership had record success this summer and past year.
“This past calendar year we saw more than 800 children come through Sherwood leading leadership lessons through basketball. 800 of our community’s youth may not seem like much, but considering they’re free, it’s head turning especially when one understands the limited populace of Walla Walla,” wrote Bridgeland in an email.
TWC started with Bridgeland and Airy when they coached together at the University of Puget Sound, the two brought the camp to Whitman when they joined the program in 2008. Since then, it has grown in popularity and been a consistent source of excitement for numerous Walla Walla youth. Phil Chircu, a senior on the team, spoke to how influential the camp has been for the attendees.
“For the kids and families themselves, I think it’s really good. They make new friends and they find out who’s in the neighborhood and it’s something that they do and look forward to throughout the summer,” said Chircu.
Though the camps are based around basketball, the objectives reach much further, with an emphasis on personal development in more than just the game.
“The mission of ‘Together We Can’ has been, from day one, to ‘teach leadership through basketball’. We wanted to have the chance to create positive experiences for youth in Walla Walla, using basketball as the ‘carrot’,” wrote Airy in an email.
Chircu expressed the same goals of the camps.
“I think it’s a really wholesome experience for them. It’s basketball but it’s also leadership and a mentality and approach outside of basketball and more pertaining to life. And how they think about themselves as well. Teaching them to dream bigger and that there’s so many possibilities out there,” he said.
Bridgeland sees the opportunity to teach these lessons through basketball as unique due to the emphasis on teamwork throughout the camp.
“Team athletics teaches invaluable life lessons to all who participate. What people that haven’t been in a culture of trust are missing or don’t realize is the sense of positive friendship and bonding that develops when everybody is focused on it over a period of time,” he said. “In short, positive leadership combined with trust is as powerful as any combo out there in developing not only our youth, but adult teams as well.”
Outside of teaching opportunities for the coaches and lessons within drills, TWC also offers opportunities at the end of each day for participants to give each other compliments and words of encouragement. These “put-ups” are an essential part of everyday of camp.
“We talk about life-skills, such as positive body language and positive communication (“put-ups”) in everything we do. This makes the activities in camp accessible, regardless of a camper’s basketball skill level. Everyone gets enthusiastic reinforcement for modeling these behaviors,” said Airy.
The camps aren’t just helpful for the campers however. Chircu, one a handful of athletes who helped coach, enjoyed his experience teaching by example and meeting all the eager faces over the course of the two sessions.
“I really liked just joking around with the kids. They’re kids but they have a great sense of humor and some of them just get it. And that’s the fun of it. You start to build relationships with the kids and you see them progress day to day and from camp to camp and to me those moments were the most rewarding,” he said.
Coach Airy saw the same outcomes from his other players.
“Like all Whitman students, they are extremely busy, but camp is an opportunity to create positive experiences for local kids– some of whom might not have much of that in their lives otherwise. They do an amazing job and are great mentors. Sometimes a powerful method to improve leadership skills is to teach them to others, and I think that ‘TWC’ camps have provided that opportunity for our players,” said Airy.
All the positives of ‘Together We Can’ would not be achieved without the support of the community and the sponsors that make the camp possible for so many.
“The community support is huge. We’re very thankful to be able to have this opportunity to do this for the kids. It’s a really special experience that we’re fortunate to be a part of ourselves,” said Chircu.