Malaria, HIV/AIDS, poverty and decades of civil unrest in Uganda spurred on by the Lord’s Resistance Army have resulted in thousands of deaths, the displacement of countless families, and a plethora of orphans that UNICEF put at 2 million in the landlocked country of East Africa in 2003.
Arach Proscovia, 22, is one of those orphans. She lost her parents at the hands of African warlord Joseph Kony when she was a young child. Joan Makanga, 16, lost her mother to HIV/AIDS when she was 4 years old. Her father rejected her before she was born. Lynate Nabukeera, 16, is the daughter of a single mother. Her father abandoned the family.
But Proscovia, Makanga and Nabukeera are the lucky ones. They are receiving an education and have the promise of a future because of basketball, thanks in part to Devon Roeper, a 6-foot-3 junior forward for Columbia.
In the summer of 2010, Roeper and other San Diego high school student-athletes went on a humanitarian trip to the rural Ugandan village of Mukono, located on the outskirts of the nation’s capital. Roeper’s visit included a medical-aid excursion into the bush where she experienced things far outside the purview of her private-school upbringing. She saw war atrocities – children with amputated ears, others with untreated and infected wounds.
Back in town, Roeper saw something else. She saw children playing with a flat ball and a broken basketball hoop. Roeper, who is the all-time leading scorer and rebounder at The Bishops School in La Jolla, Calif., got to thinking. She and fellow missionary James Lock decided these kids needed a real court. Soon, the two were spearheading a fund-raising campaign, organizing construction and forming basketball teams and clinics.
Today, the court is a central gathering place for the townspeople. It became the home of Team Phenom, which developed into a partnership between U.S. student-athletes/teams and Ugandan basketball players to support their athletic and educational goals. Under the auspices of Team Phenom, three male and three female teams were formed. Participants range in age from 11 to the mid-20s. Some teams travels around Uganda. Players sign contracts agreeing to stay in school or participate in vocational training. They also have to give back to the community.
“Basketball has really become the hook for a lot of these kids,” said Dean Roeper, Devon’s father, who also went to Uganda.
Proscovia, Makanga and Nabukeera played for Team Javon, named for James and Devon. Last year, the team reached the semifinals of the Division I Uganda National Basketball League. Proscovia has since earned a college scholarship and is the starting point guard for Uganda Christian University.
“Without Team Phenom that wouldn’t have happened,” said Steve Denney, the director for Children’s Heritage Foundation, a Solana Beach, Calif.-based nonprofit that sponsored the trip.
Makanga, a 5-foot-5 guard, was recently called up to the Uganda national Under-18 team. She wants to play in the WNBA. Nabukeera has two high school scholarship offers.
The initial court campaign inspired the building of a second court and housing in the nearby village of Wakiso. In June, the second of four 2,000-square-foot group homes that each house 12-15 orphans and a house mom was completed. The construction of the third house, which will start in January, will include a computer lab. The house moms are members of Team Javon. The team holds basketball clinics for girls and young women from other villages.
Roeper said Team Javon spreads the idea that a woman can be an athlete and can use basketball to get an education. “The girls use the court to pay it forward to teach clinics to other younger women from other communities,” she said.
Roeper, whose own outreach has extended to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and several trips to Mexico to help build homes, made a return trip to Uganda in 2013. Last year, she was acknowledged for her public service when she was selected as the only underclassman to the 2015 Allstate Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) Good Works Team. The team was then recognized at halftime of the Maryland-UConn semifinal game of the women’s Final Four in Tampa Bay.
“The difference (Devon) has made in Uganda from thousands of miles away is truly something special,” said Columbia women’s basketball interim coach Sheila Roux. “Her tireless efforts are all to make a difference in this world and it is really remarkable to watch.”
Roeper’s goal is to grow the program in Uganda through the contacts she has formed. Columbia, the Ivy League, the NCAA and the WBCA have been approached about strategic corporate partnerships with Team Phenom and its student-athletes.
“Team Phenom is still a very large part of my life,” said Roeper. “It’s made a big impact on how I view my education and how blessed I am to play college basketball. That drives me to keep this going. I realize the opportunities I’ve been given. I want to keep giving that back.”