On a recent Wednesday evening, in a plexiglass box on the top floor of the East Shore YMCA, a 17-year old named Serenity coached me as we took turns hitting a rubber ball against a wall, back and forth and back and forth.
She stayed admirably true to her name as I failed to whack it with enough force to make a legal serve, offering guidance on hand grip—“curl your fingers a bit”—and swing—“come at it lower, earlier in the bounce.”
“Everyone’s like that starting out,” Serenity said, graciously, as we exited the court. “The best thing to do is just play. If you have a question, ask a mentor.”
Serenity is one of the local teens who spends Wednesday evenings at the YMCA for the “Hope in Handball” program. Founded by David Botero, a community activist who grew up playing the sport on public courts in New Jersey and New York City, Hope in Handball wraps mentorship, volunteerism and sport into one free program that’s been running quietly but consistently for more than eight years.
Today, the program brings more than a dozen people—“ranging from ages 8 to 78,” Botero said—to the YMCA courts every week. Some are retired seasoned hand-ballers who play every day of the week. Others are high schoolers there to socialize in between sets.
“We cross everything—male female, black, white, Hispanic. We’ve got Christians, Muslims, Jewish people,” Botero said. “It’s diverse without trying to be.”
The son of Colombian immigrants, Botero grew up in Hoboken, N.J., and zigzagged into his current gig as a community booster and handball guru in Harrisburg. He previously managed ad accounts for Univision and Time Warner in Florida and central New York, partied with country music stars as a marketer for a radio station in Las Vegas, and ended up back in New Jersey to take a job in Manhattan. He and his wife moved to central Pennsylvania more or less on a whim in 2005, drawn in large part by lower housing costs. He’s since done stints with Dauphin County Human Services and the Harrisburg Police Department.
Every time he moved, Botero found a place to play handball. He said he always had the idea for a sport-based mentorship program in mind, but it wasn’t until he landed in Harrisburg that he started a league with staying power. It got off the ground with grant money from Messiah College and partnerships with the East Shore YMCA and Joshua House.
“You know how people do the wave, at sporting events?” Botero said. “It’s kind of like that. You try five or six times until something picks up. This is what picked up.”
Handball is about as low-tech as a sport can get—players only need a ball, a wall and hands that can withstand the impact of the former. Eye goggles are advisable, as are gloves, especially for rookies. Games take place on ad-hoc outdoor courts or on indoor courts designed for squash and racquetball. These modest material needs are one reason handball has taken off in cities, especially, it seems, among minority and immigrant populations. Botero likes to cite the fact that there are more handball courts in New York than there are basketball courts.
It’s also a sport for the underdog, Botero said, which makes it an ideal conduit for building confidence and camaraderie among players. “This is the sport for the kid that didn’t make the team,” he told me. “It’s an equal playing field.”
The rules of the game are simple: one player serves a ball against the wall, and an opponent has to return it before it bounces twice. The game ends when one player reaches 21 points, which can happen quickly.
“It’s really fast-paced, which is good because I don’t have the greatest attention span,” said Baxter Brienbaum, a SciTech senior who’s been playing with Hope in Handball for two years. “It’s really back and forth.”
Despite its relative obscurity—or perhaps because of it—handball inspires a certain fanaticism in its players. Destiny Stewart, who’s been playing for five years, said that she joined in the local league after dabbling in the game with family members in New York City.
“I was like, I’m gonna master this,” she said. “I come every Wednesday, even in the summer. I’ve never missed a day. One time, I sliced open my knee, because there was broken glass on my floor, and I kneeled down because my ball rolled away. I needed stitches, but I said ‘I still want to go to handball.’”
Stewart taught Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse to play the game (“he talked some trash—we all do it”) and led the pair to a 2-0 victory in doubles. In the fall, she’ll start classes at Shippensburg University, where she plans to start a handball club.
Most of the teens who join Hope in Handball are students at Harrisburg High School’s SciTech campus. Many of them (including Stewart) continue to play after they graduate, or come back during school breaks. In the summer, the league migrates to an outdoor “one-wall” court in Allison Hill’s MulDer square neighborhood.
Botero took me there on a bright Monday morning last month. It abuts a vacant lot and an auto-body shop, which, during the day, parks its cars on the asphalt court. Part of a $10,000 grant from the Allstate Foundation allowed his league to paint regulation lines and refinish the exterior wall of a warehouse, creating the city’s first public handball facility. Hope in Handball plays there into September, or as long as the sun permits.
“We barbeque, we get music going,” Botero said. “It’s a party.”
From the court, Botero and I struck out north through Allison Hill to Market Street, encountering at least three of his acquaintances as we went. Whether he’s running a handball practice or walking the streets of Harrisburg, he draws on what seems like a bottomless well of social energy. He jokes, teases, exclaims in Spanish; he receives updates on family birthday parties and community meetings. It’s one of the qualities that made him excel as Harrisburg’s Community Policing Coordinator, a role he held until last year, when he resigned following a well-publicized misdemeanor drug charge. (Botero refers to the incident today as “when I got in trouble.”)
“Man, it was a real loss,” said Basil Talib, a local poet and literacy advocate we found on Market Street. “He was out here.”
Botero left his job with the city voluntarily, after he was reassigned to deskwork in the law bureau. He remains well known in the neighborhoods where he used to work and still attends many of the same community meetings. The only difference is that now, he’s there representing Hope in Handball.
At a recent such meeting, held in the basement of Derry Street Methodist Church, Botero pitched Hope in Handball as a program that builds relationships between unlikely people. “We pull from everywhere,” Botero said, addressing a group of nonprofit leaders who were trying to develop a summer program for youth. “Our players, some are students, some are ex-offenders, retired folks, pastors—the kids learn from them.”
Botero’s description sounds like lip service, but players say it’s true. Stewart said that you can find “almost any social group” through handball. Mitch Dameshek, a Central Dauphin teacher who plays with Hope in Handball, calls Botero “the master mixer.”
Today, Botero is very much at the center of the handball orbit that he’s been building in Harrisburg since 2009. But watching matches play out on the top floor of the YMCA, one after another for hours each week, one gets the impression (somewhat hearteningly) that the league could carry on without him. Community leaders will tell you that, if there’s one challenge bedeviling all grassroots social initiatives, it’s sustainability over a long period of time.
The secret to longevity, it turns out, might be as simple as a ball and a wall.
Hope in Handball meets every Wednesday at 5 p.m. at the East Shore YMCA, Harrisburg.