09.27.2010

Harlem Globetrotters bring cheer to needy Hillsborough school

By Tom Marshall, Times Staff Writer

TAMPA– There are days when life is not much fun at Metropolitan Ministries Partnership School.

About 40 percent of the elementary school’s student body lives in the neighboring homeless shelter that shares its name. Nearly as many students have spent time there. On some days students come to school tired or upset, and teachers say they’re often not quite sure what happened the night before.

Thursday was not one of those days.

The kids were nearly hopping with anticipation as they made their way to the YMCA gym next door. All wore brand-new orange T-shirts and backpacks.

And when they walked in, their new heroes were waiting: three members of the Harlem Globetrotters paying them a private visit. The students had won a national contest sponsored by Howard Johnson Hotels and Inns — “The Give Happy Challenge” — along with $15,000 to spend on much-needed programs, supplies and field trips.

“All of America voted, all of Canada voted, and all of Puerto Rico voted,” said Rui M. Barros, a senior vice president for the hotel chain. “And you were No. 1.”

The three Globetrotters — Aundre “Hot Shot” Branch, “Slick” Willie Shaw and Anthony “Buckets” Blakes — towered above their young audience.

They played a little basketball, of course, and led a few rowdy games.

But they also brought a message: Success in life doesn’t just happen. You have to work for it and take care of yourself.

Every member of the famous team graduated from college, and students talked about that all week, fifth-grade teacher Patti Ferlita said.

“Eat well, get plenty of rest and plenty of exercise,” Branch advised.

He offered a quick history lesson on the Globetrotters, which were founded 85 years ago in Chicago. Turns out life wasn’t so easy then, either.

“Back in those days, African-American players couldn’t play in the NBA,” Branch said. “We played all over the world, but we couldn’t play on the South Side of Chicago.”

Parent Henry Caywood came to watch the show with his wife, Debbie Sheppard. They lost their home and lived for a time in the shelter with their four children, but they’re back on their own and living in Sulphur Springs.

“I love being involved with the school,” which is part of the Hillsborough County district, he said. “I think it’s very positive. All children need mentors.”

Ten-year-old Kaianna Mathieu couldn’t stop smiling.

“I think I’m famous, too,” she said.