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Making Virtual School a Slam Dunk: Teen-Run Nonprofit Helps Kids Bridge Digital Divide

Alley-Oop Kids was founded to help kids get the gear they need to play youth sports, but in the midst of a pandemic, it's found a new calling

NBC Universal, Inc.

What to Know

  • Shay Patel founded Alley-Oop Kids when he was in fifth grade, after seeing kids at the Boys' & Girls' Club playing basketball without proper shoes
  • Six years later, Alley-Oop is expanding its mission to include helping kids get the e-learning devices they need to attend school remotely
  • The new Alley-Oop Kids mobile app is a free marketplace where people with extra devices to donate can connect with students and families who need them

Kids grow up quickly — and Shay Patel is living proof.

Today, the tall, soft-spoken high school junior has a deep voice and some serious moves on the basketball court that find him soaring over his friends' flailing arms for a slam dunk.

But six years ago, long before he could reach the basket, Shay had already developed a passion for shooting hoops — and for the shoes that go with it.

"They always say, look good, play good, feel good," he said of his ever-growing sneaker collection.

two teens playing basketball
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Alley-Oop Kids founder Shay Patel competes with his friends on the basketball court — but when it comes to helping other kids, they're all on the same team.

It was one afternoon in fifth grade that Shay made a simple observation with profound consequences.

"I had a basketball practice at the Boys' and Girls' Club," he said. "I had brand new shoes, the latest gear, and the kids before me, they were playing in flip-flops and using a volleyball as a basketball."

Shay's mom vividly recalls the conversation that followed in the car.

"I could tell that he was upset about it, I could tell that he had empathy for the kids that didn't have the proper basketball gear," Supna Patel recalled. "He was little, he was only 11, but ... he decided that he wanted to do something about it."

a 5th grade boy stands on a small stage in front of a gathering of other kids his age
Courtesy: Sumit Kohli
Shay Patel, in fifth grade at the time, announced the donation of $6,000 worth of sports gear to the kids in the basketball program at the Boys' and Girls' Club of the Peninsula.

In a YouTube video, fifth-grade Shay announced the launch of his new nonprofit called Alley-Oop.

"An alley-oop is an assist," present-day Shay told us. "It's where a point guard will throw it up to the center for a dunk. ... We want them to dunk, as in succeed to the fullest."

And succeed they did. Alley-Oop's first project raised $6,000 through basketball events and bake sales, and used the money to buy new basketball gear for each of the 60 kids enrolled in the Boys' and Girls' Club program.

"Our motto is, 'Kids helping kids soar,'" said Akshaan Ahuja, Shay's childhood friend and now an Alley-Oop board member. "So the more kids we have, the more kids we can help."

Two kids in a gym jump up to grab for a basketball in the air
Courtesy: Sumit Kohli
Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down youth sports, Alley-Oop Kids held basketball clinics and 3-point contests to benefit kids on the Peninsula.

Building off the momentum of their first victory, the kids behind Alley-Oop launched an ambassador program to enlist their fellow middle schoolers as volunteers, and proceeded to hold basketball clinics, a 3-point contest, and more of those bake sales — featuring Alley-Oop's own stylishly-packaged chocolate chip cookies.

"I have personally baked a bunch of cookies, and I have a whole team of people that help me," said Shay's younger brother Rishan, who's now in 8th grade. "I think it's the love that goes into the baking that really makes it enjoyable for people. And the cookies are amazing too."

But as 2020 unfolded like a nightmare in slow motion, a reality began to set in over the summer: the COVID-19 pandemic was not going away, and that meant there would be no return to the classroom or the basketball court in the fall.

a group of middle school boys sits around a table outdoors with a laptop and a tablet
Courtesy: Sumit Kohli
Alley-Oop Kids is now a registered 501c3 charitable organization. Kids as young as 13 serve on its board of directors.

"Where we're at right now, all schools are virtual," Shay said. "I was scrambling to figure out, how am I gonna get these Zoom calls going in my bedroom? Am I gonna do them on my bed?"

Though Alley-Oop had kept its sports focus during the spring months — making stay-at-home training videos to help teenage athletes who were stuck at home — Shay and his friends realized their own difficulties adapting to virtual learning could represent a new and urgent need in the community.

"I looked at stuff that I would need, my friends would need, and figured out everyone else was gonna need that same stuff," Shay said. Kids who don't already have a computer or tablet at home "are just gonna keep falling deeper and deeper into a hole. It's unfair, it's a disadvantage. ... We want to give those kids an opportunity to attend class, at least."

A teen sits at a computer, filling out a worksheet with a pen and talking to his teacher over video chat
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Shay Patel, now a junior in high school, says virtual school has been a big adjustment for him — but it's an even bigger hurdle for kids without access to the right technology.

By the luck of good timing, Alley-Oop Kids, now a registered 501c3 charity, had already begun to take the first steps toward its next goal. With the $5,000 they raised in a recent 3-point contest, the teens had hired professional software developers to build a mobile app that could help them expand their reach beyond the Bay Area.

The app provides a free marketplace where donors looking to get rid of extra sports gear can find kids or families who can make use of it. Adding a new category for e-learning devices was a quick fix — and a game changer.

"As crazy as it sounds, everyone has a device in their drawer, or many people have devices in their drawers, that they no longer use or haven't used in five years," Shay said. "I was cleaning out my room, actually, and I realized, 'I think someone should probably be using this.' That's really where we get inventory."

mobile app on a phone screen
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
The Alley-Oop Kids mobile app is an online marketplace without price tags. People with equipment they don't need anymore can use it to connect with students and families who can put it to good use.

And throughout an unprecedented fall semester, that inventory has been snapped up nearly as quickly as it rolls in. Though the teens facilitated some of the earliest transactions through in-person meetups, their ultimate goal is for donors and recipients to arrange exchanges amongst themselves through the app's chat feature.

Though online marketplaces can occasionally provide openings for trolls and fraudsters, Shay said the Alley-Oop app's early users seem to be acting just as good neighbors should.

"There's just a lot of good people out there, and the good people have been finding our app," he said. "We hope more can find it."

a group of teens hand a laptop computer to a woman in a parking lot
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Shay Patel and his fellow Alley-Oop board members hand off a Chromebook to a Menlo Park mom — the first e-learning device to be given a new home through their mobile app.

As they picked up a box of secondhand computers and tablets to distribute to their recently-homeless neighbors, two Redwood City women praised Shay and his friends.

"You're helping society — you're not just helping one or two people," Susan Trevino told them.

"You're changing the world," added Stephanie Johnston.

Shay's mom confessed she had no idea he'd still be at this six years later. But now she's not surprised he's looking to pursue a business degree in college, with a focus on nonprofit management — and continue his involvement with Alley-Oop Kids all the while.

"I want this to be my future," Shay said.

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