ELKHART — Even though programming at the Tolson Center hasn’t existed since the summer of 2018, young people have been able to play basketball there in the first six months of 2019, through the community’s generosity.

Gym Rats Basketball, led locally by Ken Hunt, opened the Tolson doors on Jan. 7 for basketball four days a week through June. The Community Foundation of Elkhart County agreed to pay the rent to the Parks & Recreation Department.

About 100 people came together on Wednesday evening to celebrate that fact and thank the people who made it happen.

“What we wanted to do was show appreciation to the Elkhart Community Foundation for sponsoring the gym time,” Hunt said. “Hopefully we don’t have to go back to the foundation.”

The Tolson Center is set to open with daily programming through the parks department in the last half of August. That was made possible through moving the parks administration to the center, thereby cutting costs of having staff at the facility.

Forty-eight youths at the event participated in a two-ball contest that found winners in elementary-, middle- and high-school brackets, said Terrance Sherman, who is the Michiana Dream Chasers boys coach.

He said getting a chance to play basketball is important, but it’s about more than just the game.

“It gives these kids something else today instead of just roaming the streets,” he said. “Outside of the actual sport itself, it maintains and develops discipline, structure, respect.”

When Elkhart mayoral candidate Rod Roberson spoke shortly after pizza had been brought in, Hunt took advantage of a teaching moment on exactly those issues, as some couldn’t resist the pizza while Roberson was talking.

“This is one of the things that we always talk about,” he said. “This is more than basketball. If you fellas can’t stand there and listen to somebody talk for a couple of minutes and give them your undivided attention ... you’ve got a long way to go.”

It’s a process, he said after the event.

“It takes a village to raise these kids to get them on the right path, so we just need to work well together to get this done. Look at the turnout of what we did today.”

To thank the Community Foundation, Gym Rats participants had signed a large thank-you card that Hunt gave to Candy Yoder, chief program officer for the Community Foundation.

“We knew it was a slam dunk opportunity,” Yoder said about paying rent to keep basketball at the Tolson Center.

“There are so many children who benefit from this program, and it’s more than about basketball. It’s about life skills, it’s about being part of a team and it’s about improvement,” she said.

She praised Hunt for his work and dedication to the children.

“He’s got a day job, but he pours his life into these kids,” she said.

Mayor Tim Neese said the collaboration between Gym Rats and the Community Foundation has been extremely significant while city programming has been closed at the center.

“I’ve been to a few of these, and this is probably one of the largest turnouts that I’ve attended,” Neese said. “And this is what the Tolson Center is all about. We don’t care where you’re from, what color you are, your background.”

Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter @ReadRasmus

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