By Christina Hernandez, Managing Editor
“With a great gift comes great responsibility,” was the lesson Lara Hanson said she learned while studying at her alma mater, Fordham University in New York.
A point forward for Fordham’s Division I women’s basketball team years ago, Hanson, a Hoboken resident who assists the girls’ basketball team at Maplewood Middle School, said her gift is basketball and her responsibility is to teach the sport to others.
That’s why she, along with former Fordham basketball player Jon Giacobbe, is hosting a free basketball camp for boys and girls ages 10 through 12 living in the local area on Oct. 22 from 9 a.m. to noon in the gym at Maplewood Middle.
The camp will focus on the fundamentals of basketball, featuring lessons in ball-handling, dribbling, shooting, defense, rebounding, as well as noncompetitive games and more.
But, hosting this free camp is more than a way for Hanson to share her passion for the sport she has been playing since she was 5 years old.
It is also a way to inform people about the charity her former Fordham teammate and Maplewood resident, Mobolaji Akiode, started a couple years ago called Hope 4 Girls Africa, or h4g, — a nonprofit that aims to promote education for young girls in Nigeria and introduce them to basketball.
Hanson has recommended that community members give a donation to help Akiode’s organization. She noted that township recreation Director George Rague, on behalf of the Maplewood Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department, donated $200 to help sponsor the event and someone, whose name wasn’t disclosed, offered to donate $300 to sponsor the camp, as well.
“I wanted to help her raise money for Hope 4 Girls,” said Hanson. “What better way to promote a free basketball camp and spread the word of what she is doing in Nigeria.”
According to the h4g website, Akiode spent her childhood in Nigeria before permanently moving to America with her family.
She used sports as an avenue to assimilate to her new life in America, playing on the Columbia High School girls’ basketball team where she was a standout competitor. She helped the Cougars win the State Group 4 championship and led them to the State Tournament of Champions final in the late 1990s.
Akiode would continue her basketball career as a scholar athlete at Fordham and would join the national team from 2004-2007, competing in the 2004 Olympics; 2005 Commonwealth Games; 2006 World Championship; and 2005 African Nations Cup, stated the website.
She also played basketball in Europe. It was when she returned to Nigeria, where she played for the Olympic women’s basketball team, that she wanted to help younger girls “see the opportunities through sports to open doors to a successful, well-rounded life,” according to the website.
After her stint as an accountant with ESPN from 2007-2009, followed by a downward economy, Akiode left her job to build the program.Currently, Akiode resides in Maplewood but spends most of her time in Nigeria. In an email sent from Africa this week, she said she is grateful for Hanson’s support.
“It’s a win-win situation,” she said in the email. “Something to bring kids together and, of course, play and learn in a great environment — and it helps give back to many children who are not as fortunate a continent away.
“I wasn't surprised when she approached me with her idea,” Akiode continued. “Lara has been supportive from the first moment I met her at Fordham and she has always been enthusiastic about h4g. Add her creativity, and the result is a great event geared toward a great cause.”
Hanson said hosting the free camp in the township was the perfect location.
“I feel like there is a lot more community there, especially for young athletes” she said of Maplewood. “The parents seem involved and supportive of their kids playing sports.”
She added that the South Orange-Maplewood school district was “really supportive of the idea and willing to help by offering the gym space.”
“Maplewood has been amazing in supporting many great causes,” Akiode agreed. “I remember one that was done by the Columbia Lady Cougars last year, and they really had a great turnout from middle school children. It’s reflective of the teachers in our community, and the parents who engage their kids at an early age to give back. I'm so lucky to have come from a community like Maplewood — even when I was living there I was encouraged to give back. Who knew I would be the one needing support 15 years later.”
Hanson has been assisting Maplewood Middle girls’ basketball team coach Ed Lewis, a friend’s father, and Tom Nevius for around two years.
She also volunteers to coach a basketball team at an elementary school in Hoboken and provides advice and training to girls interested in playing the sport.
She said she hopes for a successful turnout at the first-ever free camp being hosted at Maplewood Middle and encourages community members to donate as much as they can to h4g.
“I am hoping people can donate whatever they can,” Hanson noted. “It’s a tough economic environment and every little bit helps.“We both feel,” she continued, “like its our duty to give back the same way so many people have given to us.”
Photo Courtesy of Lara Hanson. Photo shows Hanson, right, and Mobolaji Akiode of Maplewood, left, playing together during a Fordham Division I women's basketball game.