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I met Susie Kay in the mid-1990s. She had organized her first charity street basketball tournament on Capitol Hill, where she lived, to raise money for students at H.D. Woodson High School, where she taught.
The event, held at a junior high playground near Eastern Market, raised enough for Kay to give tuition grants from $500 to $1,000 each to four Woodson kids. I wrote a column in this paper in 1997 about her goodness. She explained why, after six years of teaching government in D.C., she felt the need to do more.
“I’ve learned a whole lot about myths here at Woodson,” said Kay, who’d grown up in Newport, R.I., before moving here after high school to attend American University. “Like the myth that if you come from a place of economic hardship and you have the academic credentials, then you’ll go to college and all the scholarship money you’ll need will be there for you. That’s just not true. Not at all. I’ve seen it too many times: The kids that I know work all through high school to make themselves successful, but after Woodson, at the end of the rainbow, there is no pot of gold waiting.”
She asked me all those years ago to include her home phone number in the piece, to make sure anybody wanting to help could get in touch.
Since that tournament, in which a team led by unknown future NBA player DerMarr Johnson beat a squad led by unknown future Republican mouthpiece Ari Fleischer in the finals, Kay and her group, which became known as Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund, subsidized the college educations of 1,000 D.C. public school kids.
But there will be no more tournaments and no more scholarships. Hoop Dreams is going away.
The organization’s 2010 fiscal year, which begins next week, will be its last.
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Warning signs began appearing earlier this summer about the fiscal fitness of the organization. The most ominous of these came when a June 25 fundraiser at the Carnegie Library, called “1,000 Strong” to celebrate the awarding of the 1,000th scholarship, was canceled. Hoop Dreams issued a statement attributing the cancellation to a “lack of ticket sales.”
“That had never happened to us before,” Kay says.
One day after the scheduled date of the “1,000 Strong” party, Kay announced that the Hoop Dreams board of directors, with her support, had just voted to phase out all operations. The group would honor all financial commitments to previous scholarship awardees, but there would be no new awardees. Ever.
“Our ability to raise funds to continue providing our students with resources to serve them in the way that has made HDSF so impactful and special has declined drastically in this particular economic climate,” Kay said in a statement announcing the group’s demise.
To longtime observers, the cancellation of one Hoop Dreams party was surprising enough; the end of the organization was shocking.
Hoop Dreams, which took its name from the documentary about a pair of Chicago-area kids whose families pin their futures on basketball, took off after Kay’s first tournament and the publicity it generated. “My mom was my biggest donor, and I had begged all my friends for money,” she recalls, “and all of a sudden I’m getting a $10,000 donation [from defense contractor EDS]. And everybody just wanted to get involved.”
Soon Kay had many local celebrities and power brokers endorsing her efforts. Fleischer, Rick “Doc” Walker, Ted Leonsis, and Jonathan Ledecky donated scads of time and money over the years to help Kay help kids. John McCain and Barack Obama showed up at Hoop Dreams fundraisers, which were staples on the local do-gooder scene.
When I checked in with Kay before the group’s 2002 streetball tournament, she said she expected a field of 2,000 entrants, made up of “around 1,000 students and 1,000 business and political leaders.” The event had moved from a junior high playground to the streets adjacent to the Verizon Center.
Commitment to the charity caused Kay to give up her teaching job at Woodson in 2003 to run the scholarship fund full time. The spirit was willing to keep it going, but the money wasn’t there.
Although Kay won’t say it, in the end it appears that the early successes doomed Hoop Dreams. The economic downturn crippled the group’s chances of meeting its ever-bigger annual budget. For 2010, that would mean nearly $1.5 million was needed just to maintain the scholarships and related programs—SAT prep courses, tutoring services, mentoring from area professionals (including Leonsis)—that had become Hoop Dreams’ staples since Kay organized that first tournament.
“Last year, when we were setting the budget for fiscal year ’09, we had about 60 percent of the money we would need already accounted for, either already in the bank or promised to us,” says Lester Davis, a spokesperson for the charity. “We knew we could get the rest. This year, we only had about 10 percent of that accounted for. We didn’t know if we could get the rest.” (Davis is a former government student of Kay’s at Woodson, as well as a Hoop Dreams scholarship winner and a 2004 graduate of Norfolk State.)
“We never wanted to make a commitment that we couldn’t meet,” adds Kay. “So we wanted to approach this in a responsible, professional way, to wind down our [operations] very carefully and respectfully. There’s no way I ever wanted this to end. This has been my life for so many years now; I can’t imagine life without it. So it’s been a surreal time for me. But you know in your heart it’s the right thing to do.”
Kay says her last big chore with Hoop Dreams is to find a “like-minded” organization in the area willing to monitor the kids from the last few classes of scholarship winners as they wind up their college stays.
She hasn’t had time lately—or in the past 13 years, for that matter—to think about what she’d like to do besides run a scholarship charity. For now, she says, she has no idea what she’ll do next.
All the recent calls from folks who’ve helped her out with Hoop Dreams or just admired her work, however, have forced Kay to take stock of what she’s already done. She admits the reminiscing has made her happy.
“I never thought how long this would go on or how big we’d get. At the start this was going to be one day a year for about eight hours, as long as it took to run a basketball tournament,” she says. “But in the end, we had extremely little to do with basketball. It was about building relationships, about creating hope. I remember that when I talked to you for a story years ago, I used the word ‘corny’ when I said what we wanted to do. But even if it’s corny, it’s true: We set out to create hope. I think we did that.”
The Historical Society of Washington has agreed to let Kay throw a party/hold a wake for Hoop Dreams in October, in the same room where the “1,000 Strong” celebration was once scheduled. Kay asked me to let folks know that any donations made at the going-away party will be turned over to the maintenance organization to continue the Hoop Dreams mission.
She asked me to not put her home phone number in the story this time.
Read Cheap Seats Daily every weekday morning at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk.