With a lacrosse coach for a father and a teacher for a mother, Matt Hanna grew up in upstate New York around sports and schools. The combination of athletics and academics proved to be a winning one for him, Hanna says. And he believes it can be also for many young men in underserved neighborhoods in Baltimore.
Hanna will use his fellowship to support and grow Next One Up, a college-preparation program he founded that combines mentoring, tutoring and leadership development with lacrosse, sports camps and athletic training.
“Many of the young men in the program have missed out on what most suburban children take for granted: playing little league baseball, joining travel sports teams and taking part in sports camps,” Hanna says. “Also, the presence of negativity in their neighborhoods, and the ‘role models’ many of these boys encounter, are not always encouraging a path to greatness through education.”
Through Next One Up, 25 boys from neighborhoods around the city join Hanna’s lacrosse team—sometimes the first team they’ve ever played on. They learn the basics of the game, but even more importantly, they learn habits to become good teammates, such as punctuality, commitment and leadership.
It’s no coincidence that such traits also are important to success in college, careers and life, Hanna says.
“They don’t need to learn to play college lacrosse,” he says. “But they do need to learn leadership and hard work. And when combined with academic growth, we are creating powerful and positive young men.”
One highlight of the program is a two-week sports camp Hanna takes his team to every year.
“It’s great to get these young men out of the city for two weeks over the summer,” Hanna says. “When they come back, they have a greater understanding of what it’s like to be on your own, away from home—even if it’s just sharing a room with a roommate, which is something they might not have done before. That’s helpful, because if that kid has been to eight camps over his high school career, then transitioning to college will be a little bit easier.”
Hanna, along with volunteer mentors and tutors, provides homework help, college and high school placement counseling, as well as life-coaching to his student-athletes.
“Sports are a great vehicle for connections,” Hanna says. “When coaching is done properly, it can be transformational.”
For example, Hanna says, many of the boys in his program come in with street smarts and untapped talents—but also chips on their shoulder.
“I can take a kid who might not be where I need him to be in terms of his punctuality or his attitude,” Hanna says. “With a lot of love, I can walk him through being a leader and a competitor.”
Hanna says he is grateful that growing up with parents who expected hard work on the field and in the classroom helped him to become well-adjusted. He often thinks of Rich, a friend from high school who was a more naturally gifted athlete than Hanna, but lacked the same kind of family support.
Rich eventually dropped out of school and ended up in prison—a turn of events that gnaws at Hanna.
“That’s a lot of what drives me, my friendship with him,” Hanna says. “I look in the eyes of 25 ‘Riches’ every day. I think about the fact that any of them could make decisions that could affect them the rest of their lives.
“Nobody helped Rich,” Hanna says. “But I’m going to help as many of these kids as I can.”