Elgin Academy alum creates basketball program to prepare youths for life
Coaching kids in a summer basketball program brought back vivid memories of unfocused energy for Justin Anthony, and he developed a vision.
The Elgin Academy alumnus saw a bit of himself in the middle-school kids he coached in the school's Junior Hilltoppers feeder program in 2011 and 2012. They were energetic about the game but undisciplined and even rebellious. He saw their potential.
Fresh out of Illinois Wesleyan University with a renewed Christian faith, Anthony wanted to combine his passion for Christ, basketball and leading youths. So at the urging of parents of the youths he coached, he founded EPIC Youth, a program that uses competitive basketball to reach and teach minors to develop their potential. EPIC stands for Empowering People In Christ.
"Taking the kids to and from practice and games, you get a chance to talk to them quite a bit," Anthony said. "You find out they need a lot more than just basketball." He uses basketball to draw the players.
"As long as they are getting to play competitive basketball and being with their friends, they're happy to be there."
And when they are there, the real life lessons take place.
"We are intentional about helping to build them into leaders," Anthony said.
A spring and a summer season involves 90-minute practices, interspersed with breakout sessions where the nine coaches talk with the players about leadership, responsibility, charity and giving back to their community, all infused with Christianity.
"It's spreading like crazy," Anthony said about the EPIC growth. "Just people being happy about the work we're doing and talking to their friends about it."
The teenage boys' teams play against Amateur Athletic Union teams, the "premier way colleges recruit for basketball," according to Anthony. This summer, one of his teams placed fourth in a national tournament in Florida.
Each season costs a player $375 to join, and that money pays for a uniform and all tournament costs. Anthony recognizes that while the cost is only about one third of an AAU season, it's still difficult for some families to fund. So EPIC teams with local businesses to offer scholarships to deserving players whenever possible.
EPIC uses a college-prep curriculum provided by the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, a 60-year-old organization that helps prepare students financially and emotionally for college. Every player is involved in at least one social service outing per season. Near the start of every season, the players spend a day at Feed My Starving Children, preparing meals for malnourished children around the world.
Coaches also facilitate a discussion with their team to decide another project. Teams have done work at Elgin's Wayside Center, a facility for the homeless to get help. Teams have also worked with assisted living facilities and organizing benefit walks.
"Basically doing whatever needs to be done," Anthony said.
Players are also invited to an overnight team-building camp in Wisconsin.
"Getting them out of their comfort zone is an opportunity to see them grow," Anthony said. "We're trying to build their resumes."
"We've been blessed to have coaches who have a heart for the kids," he said of his team of coaches. "I think a lot of the lessons you learn in basketball, if you have someone who can kind of connect that to real life, it all comes back around, comes full circle."
"At the end of the day, even though we are really competitive in basketball, our main goal is to build these young men into just that, young men, and not just boys playing basketball."