CLEVELAND, Ohio — A simple game of basketball on a chilly weeknight is more than just shooting hoops to some kids in Cleveland.

“It means to me... I get to meet new friends,” said Kayla Bennet, Empower Sports player.

“It feels like. Great. Yeah, said Isiah Finney, Empower Sports player.

  • Empower Sports is founded on the belief that no athlete should be left on the sideline
  • Kids get to play with people they look up to —like college athletes
  • The program costs little to nothing for families

It’s an opportunity for them to play and grow together.

“Sammy has found a place that’s safe and just for her. We’re a sports family, we love sports,” said Tricia Goff, parent. “Empower sports has literally changed our lives. And we can't say enough about this program.”

Without Empower Sports, kids like Sammy may not get the chance to play their favorite sport.

“I get to play around with the kids, I get to practice. I get to have a whole bunch of new friends,” said Sammy Goff, Empower Sports player.

Max Eisenberg— or “Coach Max”— is one of the program’s younger volunteers.

“Yes, it's cool to come here every day and just play basketball, you know, fun experience,” said Eisenberg.

The organization is founded on the belief that no athlete should be left on the sidelines. Kids get to play with people they look up to — like college athletes.

“It’s just fun energy... everybody cheering for everybody. It doesn't matter who's doing good things, like just everybody being celebrated, that's here and I think that's really special,” said Shannon Sword, head coach, Ursuline College Women’s Basketball.

Founder Tom Heines started it all with one basketball game seven years ago.

“Just being around these kids, they bring so much joy and so much energy into any given activity that we, we put together, and it's, it's just amazing being around them,” said Heines. “The simple pleasure they get out of being friends, meeting new people, playing sports together. It's the purity of sports and that's what we really believe sports are all about.”

Members of the Empower Sports team, like Jake Jackson, say working with the kids gave him new perspective.

“Like just how well off you have it and as well as like seeing the difference that you make, like when they're smiling, high-fiving and then like, when, after a couple of weeks like, oh, Coach Jakey coming back, it just gets really exciting, like you've noticed the difference you’re making,” said Jackson, Empower Sports program director. “I mean really, you can put your personal problems at the door, walk in here like you're going to leave with a smile regardless of what happens, so it's just exciting to like, able to do that.”

The program costs little to nothing for families.

“Tom has created it, so he charges either a very small fee, he tries to get gym space donated, he does everything he can to make it manageable for the parents, reasonable price, to the point where he says to everybody if you cannot pay, you don't pay,” said Tricia Goff.

In order to keep costs low, they need to raise money. Their biggest fundraiser of the year is later this month— Apres Cle— a 90s ski-themed event at the Big Bang in The Flats.

“Families with children with special needs, they deal with a lot, financially, a lot of different...whether it's therapies or other activities that cost a lot of money, and we don't want the cost of the program to ever be an obstacle for a kid to participate,” said Heines.

The event is $45 with an open bar— and all proceeds go to the kids

“It's such an incredible time for all the attendees, it’s something that really just snowballed, pun intended, out of control for us,” said Heines.

Tickets are on sale now.