Rising Stars, a national youth and community outreach program based on Long Island, New York, was founded two decades ago by children’s rights advocate Paul Savramis. Recently, Rising Stars Executive Director Dan Gimpel (DG) sat down to discuss the history of the program, its impact over the past 20 years, and why Paul Savramis hasn’t slowed down.
Q: We understand that you yourself were a product of Rising Stars growing up. Has that made a difference in how you view your position as Executive Director?
DG: It’s made all the difference in the world for me! My experience with Rising Stars is best described as having the best time of my life. Forgetting all of the byproducts of the program such as character development and all of what comes from being part of a team, Rising Stars was the most fun I had growing up. Paul taught us all that wanting to be a part of something greater than yourself is the first step we could take toward a greater learning. Being a product of Rising Stars allows me to speak from a personal perspective where I can say it worked wonders for me and it will work for you.
Q: How has Rising Stars changed over the past 20 years?
DG: In many ways, we still remain the same organization with the same mission and purpose. One thing Paul taught me and I have come to understand is that we have a very simple but unique model; we need to remain true to that. We use basketball to reach kids so that we can teach kids. That is something that has not changed. Kids are also still the same more than less, but the challenges they face has changed and not for the better. Rising Stars has kept up with those challenges by developing partnerships with schools, community centers and acting as a bridge between them. We also now have a full time athletic director, community outreach and a girls program that’s every bit as effective as the boys.
Q: What keeps Paul Savramis going strong after 20 years?
DG: Paul can’t just sit back and enjoy the view. As founder and now President, he hates the concept of honorary titles. Our 20th anniversary has energized him like never before. He has made Rising Stars a partner of the Long Island Alzheimer’s association and set up sponsorships for their 2016 awareness events. Paul also began a new Outreach Initiative with the Bayshore YMCA that is designed to offer youth alternatives to the gangs that are prevalent in the area. This initiative, new for 2016, is Paul’s passion and hope for a future statewide partnership with all Y’s. He is also working on a three year plan for a home facility. What keeps him going strong is seeing and hearing stories from returning graduates of Rising Stars year after year.
Q: What prompted Paul Savramis to offer his first summer basketball camps and year-round youth programs?
DG: Paul was a product of NYC’s single family, latchkey kids and he never forgot that basketball took him to a better place in life. Having the same experiences, Paul knew he wanted to work with kids, especially the ones like himself that needed positive alternatives in their lives. His first basketball camps were very popular, but it was hearing how much they really mattered to the kids that got Paul thinking, “Maybe if we could impact their lives all the time, we could make a real difference in the direction those lives took…”
Q: Rising Stars has a pretty interesting philosophy where teaching is concerned. Can you explain it?
DG: The first thing we say to each new family coming into the organization is “The secret to Teaching kids is Reaching them.” Rising Stars has adopted the concept of Play, Learn, and Grow, which was developed as the program’s descriptive with the help of a group of experienced educators. The idea is simple. Almost all Learning occurs early in life through Play. When children have the opportunity to Play and Learn on teams, they will naturally Grow and Develop character from their experiences. That’s where basketball and the power of teams comes in. The vehicle is established and the platform remains, education, values and character.
Q: What sort of problems do you hope to address through the Rising Stars program over the next 20 years?
DG: We live in a city of great affluence, but also of great poverty. This divide often leaves those on the lower end facing issues such as gangs,drug and alcohol abuse, single-parent households, and an alarming lack of education. The Rising Stars program combines the power of family, community, and education to help mold a child during their formative years, when peer pressure is often negative and alternatives are not there. Paul Savramis envisioned then, as we do now, that Rising Stars would serve to bridge the gap between those three aspects of a child’s life and teach them to be a leader instead of a follower. The one statistic in New York City that RS was never able to accept was a 15 – 20% college ready graduation from HS. Kids dropping out or failing HS contribute to many of society’s ills as a whole. Rising Stars’ greatest accomplishment over 20 years is in being able to reverse that trend through academic support and after school programs that show a +90% HS graduation success rate. That simple statistic helps us deal with a great deal of problems, today and for the future.
Q: How have Rising Stars’ alumni played a role in the program’s success?
DG: Back in 2007, Paul got a call from Jay Williams who, as you may know, is a former NBA star and NCAA champion. Jay is currently one of ESPN’s brightest stars and, like myself, was one of Paul’s students in the Rising Stars program. Together, Jay and I worked with Althea Williams (Jay’s mother and a celebrated educator) to establish a more effective educational platform and network. In 2011, Paul stepped away from the day to day operations of executive director and I was honored to be asked to take his place. I feel that alumni have played a critical role over the past 20 years in helping us grow. This area of support has not been limited to former players but has included parents,coaches and other parts of the bridge we have all worked to develop. That support has been instrumental in placing influential coaches and mentors to work with the boys and girls of today’s programs. Today, we are able to reach hundreds of new children, both boys and girls, every year – and help provide private education and program scholarships to students who may have otherwise been overlooked by society.
2016 begins a new era for Rising Stars, but our focus remains the same: working together, as a team, and as a family, to accomplish more for every child in our program because they deserve more.