METHUEN — The neighborhood streets, community pools and playground basketball courts of yesteryear were packed with kids in the summertime: lengthy bike rides were followed by diving contests and pick-up games of three-on-three.
Today, the generation currently in school is the first to grow up with smart phones. As such, children and teenagers have gravitated toward air conditioning, WiFi and electricity. But at the Merrimack Valley YMCA Methuen branch, a new summer program has given kids a reason to get back outside.
The Rising Rangers Summer Classic is an evening basketball league that lasts for two months, from mid-June to mid-August. Local students entering grades five through eight are eligible to play on one of the 10 co-ed teams that are coached by teens from the Methuen High School Junior Varsity basketball team.
"It is a league and it is competitive ... but because it's outside, it's a lot of fun and has a casual atmosphere, too. The families come and bring their lawn chairs — it's a really fun league," said Anne Whalen, executive director of the YMCA.
The program started in 2016, after New England Sport Court donated the time and materials to refinish the Y's outdoor basketball courts. Whalen and Ryan Middlemiss, the Methuen JV basketball coach who also works at the Y, then hatched the plan to create a summer classic league.
"That's the habits of kids growing up right now — they're in front of the TV, in front of the phone," Middlemiss said. "I think a program that has them outside, being active and running around is a good thing."
In addition to getting kids up and moving, Whalen and Middlemiss said it offers a chance for the kids to bond — with their peers and with older or younger students.
"It's a great opportunity for both sides, for the younger kids to see what they could potentially aspire to if they stay with basketball...and it's a great opportunity for the high school players to kind of give back a little bit," Whalen said. "I mean, it is a part-time job, but it's a leadership development opportunity for them, too. And they have a lot of fun doing it."
The program costs $50 for members of the Y and $75 for other kids in the community. This year, through a $600 donation from the Exchange Club, eight children from St. Ann's Home and School — a facility that treats children with emotional and behavioral problems — were able to be a part of the program with their peers.
"I think giving that opportunity to all kids is amazing, but giving that opportunity especially to kids from St. Ann's is really special because they have a lot of challenges that they're facing, and this is something to look forward to, to be able to interact with their peers, not just from St. Ann's, but in the community," Whalen said, adding that it provides "a sense of normalcy in their life."
On Wednesday, several members of the Exchange Club — of which Whalen is a member — attended a game to watch the kids play. The members, some YMCA employees, and a few children took a photo on the court at the end of the evening, holding a giant display check.
"The kids were hilarious," Whalen said. "They were like, 'Can you cash that?'"