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Bears give back to girls' basketball players across the world in Uganda

Stonington — The first thing you notice is the smiles that take up the entire photograph, beaming, laughing expressions of the most perfect joy. The next thing is the uniforms, white with brown numerals and the letters which read, “BEARS.”

The team wearing the jerseys is the Javon Lady Phenoms from Arua, Uganda, an East African country which is one of the poorest in the world.

The donation of the jerseys came from the Stonington High School girls' basketball team, nearly 7,000 miles away, facilitated by head coach Paulla Solar through one of her former players, Vianna McGugan, who is the president of an organization called “Teammates for Life.”

Solar has become the group's secretary and while courts are being built and basic dribbling skills taught to the young women of Uganda, the veteran Stonington coach has used the humanitarian effort as one of the life lessons in which she likes to immerse her athletes.

“It feels really cool that there's these people across the world and we can help,” Stonington senior forward Cameron Dreher said. “People are people, across the world or in Pawcatuck, Conn. (Seeing the Ugandan players in Stonington uniforms) gives everyone a new outlook on it.

“They're happy just being on the court. They're happy just to hold a basketball. It's definitely something to be proud of.”

The “Teammates for Life” mission is “to establish global partnerships with individuals who support improving disadvantaged communities using mentoring and educational activities, resulting in their ability to become self-sustaining.”

The organization's web site goes on to say that the lack of access to quality education is of epic proportions for girls in Uganda.

“We choose to begin our mission with a sports theme because sports is an international language that even those without adequate education can understand. One of our goals is to provide basketball instruction and necessary equipment to young girls with hopes of encouraging them to stay in school and prevent early pregnancy.”

It is not the first charitable cause in which Solar's team has become involved.

Traditionally, the Stonington girls dedicate each season to a cause and each player solicits sponsors, who donate $1 or more for each Bears victory. In the past, the players have raised money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Outreach for Haiti through the Diocese of Norwich and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Last year's effort raised money to sponsor the education of two Ugandan girls for one year. This year, each Stonington player has the object of raising $20 to donate one basketball to a girl in the Uganda program.

Solar refers to the Ugandan beginners as Stonington's “sisters.”

“I'm a big fan of John Wooden and I always have been; he inspired me,” said Solar, in her 25th season overall in two separate coaching stints at Stonington, speaking of the former UCLA men's basketball coaching great. “There's more to basketball than X's and O's.

“When I started coaching the second time around, around Christmastime we started to exchange presents. It seems like the kids have enough. I said, 'Why don't we make a donation?' The kids love doing things like this. It's an extension of the classroom. … It's going to get kids to think outside their own gymnasium. The girls over there are thrilled.”

•••

McGugan, a 1980 Stonington High graduate, is a member of the Connecticut Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. She was a member of the Bears' 1980 Class M state championship team, the program's first, and later went on to coach at her alma mater for seven seasons, winning the 1994 Class M title, as well, during that run.

A scientist for Pfizer Global Research & Development, McGugan is presently in the midst of a month-long stay in Uganda, posting videos regularly to the “Teammates for Life” Facebook page. Last week, she explained to the girls the value of a bounce pass inside the key and coached them through a fast break drill, which was capped by a spot-on bank shot from a girl wearing a skirt.

“The (Stonington) uniforms went to northern Uganda in the West Nile Region, a town called Arua, bordering Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a rough war-torn area recovering from years of turmoils,” McGugan, whose coaching complements that of a regular lineup of Ugandan coaches, said in an email.

“But I assure you, in a few years, Geno (Auriemma, UConn women's basketball coach) will be looking at these girls I'm training. Remember I said that. … We are really going strong now!”

McGugan said her association with Uganda began 16 years ago through her church, Calvary Episcopal Church in Stonington and its Uganda Mission Team.

“I coached Vianna and we wonderfully stayed connected for all of these years,” Solar said of McGugan, who approached her former coach with the “Teammates” project.

“It's so exciting. It's a reality. They are in a Bears uniform,” Solar said. “I think it's important. We get used to things in the U.S. We're giving them uniforms that possibly don't fit them, maybe the ball is flat. … I would love to go (to Uganda). I've talked to Vianna and seen them in pictures; the girls are so excited to learn the drills.”

Other schools in Connecticut which have participated in donating to “Teammates” are the St. Bernard School, Lyman Memorial High School, Mystic Middle School and Platt High School. As part of her senior project, Lyman's Sophia Anderson helped collect donations at the team's preseason jamboree on Dec. 3, “The Bulldog Bash,” with Westbrook High School and Parish Hill High School also participating, according to coach Jeff Gaucher.

“If I could promote anything, I wish more schools would get involved (in donating old uniforms, sneakers or other equipment),” Solar said. “We'll go pick them up.”

•••

The new Stonington girls' basketball team room features a display of John Wooden's famed Pyramid of Success in one corner — the foundation of the pyramid consists of industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation and enthusiasm and builds upward to the top block, competitive greatness — and late Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt's Definite Dozen not far from that.

With Solar, there always seems to be a life lesson lurking somewhere.

Stonington sophomore Izzy Yarnall said she doesn't mind that concept at all.

The Bears (4-1) begin playing in the Westerly Community Credit Union Holiday Tournament on Wednesday, facing Chariho (R.I.)

“I think (the lessons) are really important because not all of us are going to go on. The majority of us are not going to play basketball in college; that's not a lot of peoples' goals. But these life lessons, like the Pyramid of Success, all these things can be applicable into our everyday lives and into workplace scenarios and to everything in life.

“It's just really important that it's not just about basketball here in Stonington. It's about making us better people. … I think it's really great that we're giving back to the community because they all support us as basketball players. It's really great to give back and support everyone, as well.”

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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