With Chicago’s history of violence, a non-profit organization called Noah’s Arc Foundation, has taken a stance to help children by promoting peace and positivity in the community using arts and sports. Founded in 2010 by Joakim Noah, a center for the Chicago Bulls, and his artist mother, Cecilia Rodhe, this foundation promotes peace in Chicago by providing children in the downtown area a safe refuge to express themselves and channel their energy and emotions through arts and sports. Joakim’s vision for the program is to help the children improve themselves in positive ways rather than turn to the streets, start a fight, or join a gang. Noah’s Arc Foundation started as a small organization, which ran its art and sports programs only a few times a year. Fast-forward five years, and the organization is now running several programs each week. Partnerships - like the one with Up2Us Sports - has made that growth possible. Shannon Pagels of Noah’s Arc recalls, “we received a call from someone at Up2Us Sports who was interested in getting to know Joakim and his work. As the conversation went on, we said hey, we have these great programs but we need coaches, talented and trained coaches, to be a part of these programs.”
Enter EJ Ollison, Noah’s Arc Foundation’s first and only full-time basketball coach. EJ coaches the youth at Noah’s Arc three times a week at Major Adams Community Center. Located on the near west side of Chicago near the United Center where the Bulls play, Major Adams Community Center serves youth and families with out-of-school programs. Shannon mentioned, “it’s an independent center, not your typical Boys and Girls Club or YMCA. They were in need of support and they welcomed us with open arms.”
Through the partnership, EJ has been able to create a team program that allows the children access to a safe place to come at night to hone their skills, become better players, and better community members. Noah’s Arc now hosts a Moonlight Basketball League two nights a week from June to August.
EJ was born and raised in the same area as the Community Center and understands the need to give back to his community. He attended Crane High School just three blocks from the Community Center, where he excelled at basketball. EJ candidly shared, “I was born and raised in the projects. After high school I stayed home for two to three years and tried to improve my grades so I would be up to par to get a Division-1 scholarship. I was blessed with the right coaches that got me out of Chicago and out to California.”
However, the road to his success was not always straight. EJ felt lost and aimless during his first year in Riverside City College, a community college in California. “I did not have any major or purpose so it ended up taking me three years to finish my Associates Degree in Liberal Arts,” shared EJ. “Then I was offered a full scholarship in Oklahoma.”
His switch to Oklahoma Panhandle State University, a Division-2 school, was a tumultuous one. “I had anger problems. We lost a game in Texas and I had an altercation with a teammate. We got into each other in the locker room. I got the bad end of the stick. My scholarship was not taken away from me but I was not signed for another year.”
Because no school wanted to take a chance with EJ, dejectedly, he came home and went to East-West University, small private NAIA school in downtown Chicago. He switched his major and went there on and off for one or two years. He said that he was not really focused and ended up stopping altogether with only two semesters left.
With no real purpose but with a burning hunger and determination to help others, EJ started volunteering everywhere he could. EJ divulged, “I started volunteering all over the place. I started doing what I love doing and doing it from my heart. I volunteered with summer programs and coached teams. We started a dance program at Crane High School. I was busy with no money but I loved what I was doing.”
Over the years, his love of volunteering paid off because he got involved with Noah’s Arc Foundation, where he was offered the coaching job through Up2Us Sports’ CAA program. Shannon said he was the perfect fit as their first full time basketball coach. As a local champion, EJ knew the kids and their families. Shannon shared, “He knows the politics and situation of the area. He knows the game. He knows the people and he knows a great way of mediating. He’s made Major Adams Community Center a safe place for these kids. He's been through a lot. He’s a great basketball player in his own right. He has gotten out and created something of his life. We saw his passion and it’s something that’s so great.”
Asked what kind of impact this program gives to the community, EJ enthusiastically shares that “the impact is very clear – you make it about the kids. The program allows for the children to be themselves but with structure and discipline. It also allows for them to express who they are and not to be ashamed. We understand the situation of most of these kids go through on a day to day basis.”
EJ said that the training he received as a CAA coach has made him realize that he needs to have the connection with the kids more than anything else. It gave him the ability to listen and understand what the kids need instead of what they are not doing or what they do not have. EJ shared that he was trained to “look for signs and to be there and be helpful and give the kids the one on one attention they need, which could not have been possible elsewhere.
EJ believes that the difference is the connection, because “these kids are a little rougher and they didn’t care at first that I was from here. I had to earn their respect and their trust like any other kid. What’s important to me is to create a safe environment, just like what Up2Us Sports emphasizes - the vital connection – getting to know the kids, not always talking, giving them more control and not telling them what to do.” He feels he has a responsibility to mentor these kids because the time spent with them makes a difference in their lives. He believes there is more work to do on his part, but he is getting there.
For the rest of the year, EJ will be coaching kids six to 17 years old, five days a week. He is also very enthusiastic about the future. Asked what he would love to do down the road, EJ readily replies that his vision would be to create a tournament, March Madness style. “Maybe a team of 32 girls and 32 boys if we can pull that off, that will be great! But we will need more than one facility to do something like that. It is just an idea for right now.”
Thanks to Vian Wheatley, a volunteer through our partnership with Humana, for helping us compose this inspiring story.