A new program is helping young people with special needs to play basketball

HoopNow builds social communication and teamwork skills. Source: HoopNow

In just a few months, Melbourne’s HoopNow has signed up more than 35 families and five special needs schools. Its co-founder tells SBS News there’s more to the project than learning to play sport.

Launching a start-up during Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdown was a tough decision to make, but the founders of HoopNow knew it was an important one. 

“The goal of HoopNow is to bring all kids with special needs, no matter what difficulty they’re facing, into an environment that’s judgment-free,” co-founder and CEO Matthew Walker says. 

“They can participate in basketball as a team and we can adapt the game to their needs.”

The organisation caters to children and young people aged four to 24 with a variety of special needs. Some clients are non-verbal and limited in their communication. 

One-hour classes are held at various courts across Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, and while the program, which launched in June, is aimed at reducing the barriers of entry to basketball, the sport itself is not the ultimate end. 

“Most of our families use basketball as a tool for social communication and teamwork skills, so that’s the most important thing,” Walker, 21, says. 

More than 35 families have signed up to HoopNow.
More than 35 families have signed up to HoopNow.

“Although we play basketball, the main goal for HoopNow is to encourage and spark confidence in these young people and improve their communication.”  

Walker and his co-founder Jordan Sandler, 22, grew up playing basketball together and came up with the concept while shooting hoops at their local court.  

Walker has been involved in personal development through Trinity Grammar School in Kew’s Learning Journeys program and Sandler runs CareNow, an organisation connecting families and special needs support workers.

“We talked about how good it was that we got to become good mates over basketball and team sport,” Walker says, but they were dismayed at the lack of access to team sports in the special needs community. 

HoopNow founders Matthew Walker and Jordan Sandler.
HoopNow founders Matthew Walker and Jordan Sandler.

Despite the COVID-19 restrictions, they have been able to continue their work through one-on-one sessions and instructional videos.

So far, they have provided training to more than 35 families and five special needs schools, with school incursions and weekend camps planned for when restrictions lift. 

HoopNow currently employs 26 coaches and some big names in the sports world have also joined the board, including Dr Gaylene McKay, the games record holder for the WNBL and lead physiotherapist for the Australian women’s national basketball team, The Opals. 

Eventually, they would like to roll the program out nationally. 

HoopNow creates access to a team sport in the special needs community.
HoopNow creates access to a team sport in the special needs community.

HoopNow aligns with National Disability Insurance Scheme funding, meaning parents can pay for sessions using their allocated NDIS budget. 

In the reviews on their Instagram page, one parent praised the “calm and relaxed atmosphere created by our coach” as well as their “can-do attitude”, while another called HoopNow “an amazing find – my daughter’s skills and confidence grow each session”. 

“The fact that a lot of these kids have been talking to their parents and the parents have been asking us when the next HoopNow session is, is just awesome,” Walker says. 

“We never thought a couple guys shooting the ball would change this many lives.”

Denis Curnow is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne.

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