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Clarksville-native Ram takes basketball knowledge to India

In Chennai, India, children are running against an unforgiving clock.

According to UNICEF, of the 200 million enrolled students in the country, 80 million will drop out before finishing elementary school.

On the other side of the globe, in Clarksville, River Hill graduate and Maryland men's basketball senior Varun Ram never felt the pressures that kids feel on a daily basis in the country where his parents grew up.

This summer, Ram was able to experience that disparity firsthand. And, through the Crossover Basketball and Scholars Academy and the "Hoops Creating Hope" program, he was able to work with others in closing the gap through his favorite sport.

"We want to use basketball as a vehicle to change," said Ram, who traveled to India in July for the two-week camp that catered to more than 400 students. "We combine the ideas of sport and leadership, and all the values you can learn through sport. We hope to inspire these kids to continue their education."

Most of the children Ram encountered during his time in India came from impoverished families. The mentality in those homes, according to the Terrapin guard, is that sports are a distraction.

"They don't understand the other skills you can get," he said. "We want to introduce that to their lives."

That's the mission of "Hoops Creating Hope," a non-profit organization that Shaun Jayachandran, a coach and science teacher, founded nearly three years ago. The program reaches out to the students through sport and education, promoting values like leadership, character, teamwork and communication.

Jayachandran, whose family hails from Chennai, started the Crossover experience with India's school dropout rate in mind. His inspiration comes from the coaching trees of John Wooden, Lefty Driesell and Morgan Wootten — all systems he's worked with as a coach or player in the past.

By introducing basketball to the area, rather than familiar sports like cricket and soccer that could have more downtime during play, the goal is to keep the kids as engaged as possible.

Additionally, the program's mission is not to open basketball to India in hopes of marketing the sport or to find the next star. It's strictly for the betterment of the kids.

"By connecting with education," he said, "we are having a direct correlation with the values of the culture."

Jayachandran first met Ram when the then-Hawks standout attended the Harvard Elite summer camp. Years later, when he was in search of volunteers for Crossover, his addition to the team seemed obvious.

"We're always looking for great role models," Jayachandran said. "Clearly his education is second-to-none of any college kid."

Ram's athletic prowess, family history and ability to relate to the kids he'd be working with made him an ideal fit as well. It was just about making the trip work for the busy Division I athlete.

As he entered his first season of eligibility in College Park during the summer of 2013, Ram declined an invitation to take part in the organization. Missing two weeks of summer workouts just wasn't in the cards at the time.

This year, however, was different.

"As soon as my coaches heard about the organization, they said I had to go," he added.

And so Ram embarked on his trip to India — the first time he would do so in his life without his parents.

Every day of camp, which was held at the American International School in Chennai, there were four stations of activity.

During his two-week stay in the country working with the program, Ram was asked to take on a number of different roles. Obviously, teaching basketball techniques and skills was high on his list of responsibilities, but so too was working in the classroom. He even filled in for the yoga instructor one afternoon.

The school was renovating its indoor gym to accommodate for Olympic-style regulations, so the students and staff had to take advantage of outdoor courts, portable hoops, and turf and grass fields for conditioning workouts.

Resources were in high demand, and so were the few precious spots in the program. A participation cap was even needed to ensure the camp would not be overcrowded.

"India is so populated," Ram said. "And it is a pretty cool program. A lot of people were interested in it. The sheer numbers will tell you that you can get as many kids involved as you want."

Harvard University junior Jonah Travis and Emory women's players Lauren Ball and Maggie Brown joined the cause as counselors as well.

Ram, who transferred to Maryland from Trinity College, was able to witness the impact that the group's presence and teaching had on the students.

"It's unbelievable," he said of his own personal takeaway from the program. "It's the first time I've been involved in some actual, serious volunteer work. It was so gratifying."

According to the University of Maryland's athletic site, Ram holds a 3.99 GPA and majors in neurobiology and physiology. While he still has a year of eligibility remaining following this season, working with more organizations like Crossover could be in his future.

"He's always energetic and ready to go," Jayachandran said. "He always wanted to make (the kids) feel special. He was really outstanding. For a lot of students, working in the realm of NGOs and a world of sport is something they are not exposed to as a career path or option.

"He'd be an asset to any non-profit."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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    Varun Ram, River Hill graduate and current member of the University of Maryland basketball team, talks with one of the campers during class at the Crossover Basketball and Scholars Academy in India.

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