The basketball courts at the Ramsey Student Recreation Center turned into a championship arena in July when 50 teenagers from the Pulaski LIFE League came to the University of Georgia to play the final games of their season.

But the trip—the second annual visit to UGA by the Pulaski LIFE Leaguers—was about more than a game. It was the capstone event for these elementary, middle and high school students, who spent five weeks this summer learning about good sportsmanship, appropriate behavior, making the right decisions, setting goals, managing money and dressing for success.

Rising 10th-grader Ga’quan Watkins earned $500, which he will receive when he begins college in three years, by completing a series of tasks demonstrating the life lessons taught through LIFE League, which means Leading and Inspiring through Fellowship and Education.

“I learned a lot about preparing myself for the ‘big’ world,” said Ga’quan, who is planning to major in animal science at Fort Valley State University.

The Pulaski LIFE League began three years ago when Jeff Tarver, its founder and director, reached out to the Archway Partnership in Pulaski County. Through the Archway Partnership, a unit of the UGA Office of Public Service and Outreach, communities in Georgia are connected with university resources that can help them address their most pressing challenges. There are currently eight active Archway Partnership counties.

Tarver, a former juvenile probation officer who now teaches criminal justice studies at Middle Georgia State, saw the need for a program that would engage students and help them build life skills for success.

“Jeff, along with fellow Pulaski Tomorrow participants Tyler Jenkins and Nevin Shennett, wanted to reach young people before they get into trouble and LIFE League grew out of that idea,” said Michelle Elliott, the Archway professional from UGA in Pulaski County.

What began as five Saturdays spent learning life lessons followed by lunch and basketball for Pulaski County youngsters has grown exponentially, morphing into summer camps that reach hundreds of children in Pulaski and neighboring counties.

This summer, more than 200 children ages 5-18 from Pulaski, Bibb, Houston, Twiggs and Bleckley counties participated in camps. While basketball is still a major draw, programming has expanded to include an interpretative arts camp in Bibb County and a drumming group in Hawkinsville.

Community support for the program has been strong. This year, instead of riding in an un-air conditioned school bus, the students traveled to and from Athens in a chartered bus paid for by Charles Johnson, a Hawkinsville native, UGA alumnus and current member of the Carolina Panthers NFL team.

The Archway Partnership has been instrumental in bringing many of the campers to UGA for a chance to experience life as a Bulldog. During the LIFE League visit in July, representatives of the president, admissions and the Office of Institutional Diversity met with the students. They ate lunch in a campus dining hall and toured the Ramsey Center.

A highlight of the day was the arrival of UGA basketball players Yante Maten and Kenny Geno, who assisted in presenting awards following the games. They also shared their personal experiences.

“When I was a kid, I was always picked last for basketball,” said Maten, a sophomore from Pontiac, Mich. “But then, I started making sure I was always in the gym more than anyone else and I became much better.”

Geno, a junior from Booneville, Miss., noted that even as a college player he has had to re-focus. “I used to struggle, not just as a player, but as a person. I hadn’t worked hard enough for the past two years, but now I’m in the gym for an extra hour-and-a-half every day just shooting and improving so I can contribute better as a player.”

While all of the campers received medals for their basketball prowess, Tarver had prizes for those who had met the other camp requirements. He also had a special award for Tyneshia Edwards, a former LIFE Leaguer who served as a coach this summer, for earning a 4.0 grade point average at Central Georgia Technical College.

Throughout the day, Tarver made sure the focus didn’t drift from the true goal of LIFE League.

“This organization is about more than basketball,” Tarver told the students. “It’s about life. I want you to think big. Don’t be mediocre. Think big.”