- Written by Gabriele Amersbach Gabriele Amersbach
“It’s addictive and safe. There is no contact. All you need is gloves, eye guards, and a ball,” says Kevin Gibson, 67, an avid handball player, personal fitness trainer, ordained minister, and mentor in the HOPE in Handball program at Harrisburg’s East Shore YMCA.
“Anyone can play — you don’t have to be the youngest or the most physically active. Age and gender don’t matter. Girls can beat the boys. Slower can beat the faster.”
There are three versions of handball: played on a one-wall court, a three-wall court, or an enclosed four-wall court. A small rubber ball is hit between opponents, challenging them to return the ball before it bounces on the ground twice or is hit out of bounds.
“And you can play handball for the longest duration of your life — kids from 7 to adults in their 80s and even 90 can play,” Gibson adds.
A Heart for Youth
Because of the universal appeal of the game, a group of handballers who met playing regularly at the Y are now committed to a handball and mentoring program started in 2009 by David Botero, 46, a marketing strategist at UPMC Health Plan, and his friend Sally Snyder, then the youth director at The Joshua Group.
“We believed there was a need to extend the sport to children in the community,” says Gibson. “David had a heart for the youth and wanted them to have an alternative place to meet. The first kids were from Sally’s latchkey program. She began bringing them to the Y.”
Botero quickly encouraged his longtime group of friends who played handball regularly at the Y to become mentors.
“We wanted to take down barriers for local youth who didn’t have access to the Y and spread the joy of handball,” he says.
Botero found grants and funding so the youths did not have to pay for their membership, equipment, or tournament fees, if they earn the opportunity to participate.
“All we ask is that they bring sneakers and a really good attitude,” says Botero. “The program introduces young people to a new sport as they learn to interact with people out of their comfort zone.”
While both adults and youth can play any time the Y is open, the HOPE in Handball program operates Wednesdays from 5 to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The older players teach the game to the kids and show them drills.
The program relies on a group of adults who commit to being there on a regular basis, says Gibson.
“We show up to be with the kids, play with them, coach them, encourage them — and distract them from other influences,” he explains. “The focus is on sportsmanship and character building. As they develop camaraderie, they develop respect — both for boys and girls.
“We want to be sensitive to their needs and try not to be pushy. We never want to override any instructions from their parents.”
Messaging Kids How to Conduct Themselves in This World
Sanford Krevsky, a 76-year old lawyer, brings another perspective to the program.
As a hearing officer, he works with families to make custody determinations through a conciliation process that historically has allowed 9 out of 10 families to avoid a court hearing.
To do so, learning to compromise is essential.
“I have been married a long time. To be a successful husband and father of five children, compromise is necessary.”
He has no plans to retire and feels “lucky” to work with families in custody mediation.
“I still have a fire in my belly for what I do,” says Krevsky.
As a young attorney, he defended a youth in a shooting incident related to the animosity between William Penn, located at the city’s northern end, and John Harris High schools, at the eastern end of the city. The schools were strong sports rivals.
After the school districts were merged in 1972 and all students were moved to the John Harris location, “the rivalry between youth from uptown and the hill went from competitive to violent, with no real reason except turf dominance,” he explains. “It devolved into a real problem for the city of Harrisburg.”
Programs like HOPE in Handball aim to diffuse similar hostilities.
“By crossing generation, color, and gender lines, we want to preach to kids that baseless animosity is unnecessary and unhealthy,” Krevsky continues.
As a mentor, he wants youths in the program to also learn how to compromise and get along peacefully.
“We’re messaging these kids how to conduct themselves in this world,” he says.
Krevsky gets great satisfaction being part of a community and seeing the youths in the program complete school and go on to careers, college, or the military.
“I was raised in a Jewish family,” he explains. “In my faith, you are directed — commanded — to doing a mitzvah, or good deed. Leaving the world a better place is a job requirement.”
Krevsky illustrates how the program can change the life of a participant:
“Serenity was 12 when she joined the program. A few years later she was honored at our annual HOPE in Handball banquet. She wore a formal dress and spoke so eloquently. It was awesome. She went on to be a cum-laude student in college and completed a graduate degree.”
He adds that even Serenity’s mother started working out and became active in the program.
A Family-Friendly Community
Another longtime mentor in the program, Mike Petroskie just turned 78 and hopes to play handball into his 80s. After retiring in 2007 from an international manufacturing company, Petroskie changed gears.
He had always loved handball and played in local and national handball tournaments throughout the ’90s. When his friend David Botero started HOPE in Handball, Petroskie was there to record every match and encourage the youths to enter tournaments.
“It’s great to see a smile on their faces as we teach them how to play, and they just get better and better,” he says.
Although not a handball player herself, his wife, Margaret, is part of the handball community and adds, “I see the kids grow up and become responsible adults with good manners. The mentors are dedicated and always open to conversations and helping each student.
“Families come to tournaments and attend other events with these kids. It’s a very family-friendly and loving community.”
The mentors are quick to take young handball players under their wings and offer help with resumes, job searches, and even free haircuts. On occasion, they attend community events together, from art exhibits to local games.
A favorite fun activity is HOPE in Halloween, where about 60 youths and siblings (and mentors) are locked into the Y or a similar location for the evening. The party is kept lively as participants play handball and board games and eat treats.
“When they get rides home by 2 o’clock, they are usually too tired to go out again and do something dumb,” says Botero.
The handball community has also expanded to include both the previous and current mayors of Harrisburg; both have visited the program.
During her visit, current Mayor Wanda Williams even played a few games with younger players. Recently, her office provided tickets for 29 youths, family members, and mentors to attend a Harrisburg Senators baseball game. According to the mentors, the evening was a resounding success.
Handball, the Fountain of Youth
While the benefits for the youthful members of the program are many, older players are equally enthusiastic about the advantages of playing handball as they age.
“Handball is what we call the great equalizer — the fountain of youth,” Botero summarizes. “It’s based on skill and experience — not athleticism.”
Petroskie, who plays four days a week, says his own health journey reflects the benefits of playing handball.
“I maintain a physical level so I can continue to play the game,” he says. “I can run, play, and do a lot of activities 70-year-old men can’t do anymore. Playing handball has helped me to come back from two knee replacements and a rotator cuff surgery.”
Gibson used handball to rehab from a hip replacement.
“It’s a low-impact sport — with more lateral movement,” he explains. “The most exciting aspect of the game is that you have to learn how to play strategically. You use your hands to control the speed, direction, and the trajectory of the ball.
“Since you don’t jump much, it’s easier on the knees for older people. Within six months of my hip replacement, I was playing light games to get my movement back so I can better service my clients. I’ve been playing the game over 50 years and can’t say enough about it.”
Krevsky concludes, “Playing handball keeps me young. I love that I can play a sport with a teenager and be competitive.”
The youths at HOPE in Handball are warming up.
On the cover – From left, handballers Mike Petroskie, Sanford Krevsky, and Kevin Gibson are ready for action.
Photo credit: Destiny Stewart and Andrew Reiersen