The first time Thang Van stepped onto the basketball court at the Philadelphia Suns’ rec center, he felt unsure. He didn’t consider himself to be very athletic at the time, as he was more interested in chess and math, but how could one basketball game hurt? The young high schooler would soon build his confidence with help from the close-knit organization.
Years later, Van is now one of the administrators for Chinatown’s Philly Suns Youth Development Program, a newly revamped group that aims to provide Philadelphia’s Asian-American youth with essential life skills. The Youth Development Program (YDP) is a subset of the sports- and community service-oriented Philadelphia Suns, the very same organization that had played a huge part in Van’s adolescence.
Now he has the chance to give back to the organization that had opened many doors for him. Since joining the administration board last summer, Van has bridged the gap between inexperienced youth and local professionals. Especially with the recent wave of Asian-American representation in mainstream media, he said it is even more important than ever to establish relatable, local role models for Philadelphia’s Asian-American youth.
You said the Philly Suns influenced you a lot when you were younger. How did you get involved?
I joined in sophomore or junior year of high school and I didn’t know anybody. There was this one kid in high school that I got along with and he asked me if I wanted to play basketball. I said sure, which put me in a new position and I met new people. He only showed up to one practice and I just continued it.
What did you learn?
They definitely showed me how to be a leader, coming from the area and cultures I knew back then. I grew up in Kensington, North Philadelphia. You know, they didn’t have a big community of Asians and joining them opened up a new door with traveling and sports tournaments. It was fun.
What are your responsibilities as an administrator for YDP?
My aspects with the Suns is to handle the youth community. I’m trying to lean towards more individual, personal relationships because right now there are a lot of mentees and not a lot of mentors yet. I try to find mentors who have graduated college and already have life experiences and life lessons, you know, for them. So this new thing I’m trying to do is build more social events and help them gain more social skills. Also I plan to have more workshops of doing resumes, college trips, and having a day to help them apply for scholarships.
What kind of activities does YDP provide?
We’re incorporating stuff where we’re giving the younger kids from school to college age all the things we learned from the experience. Things that they never learned before, like how to do taxes or change a tire, this and that. All those things they don’t teach in school, just life experiences.
Since this program is centered around providing mentors to local youth, who would you say has inspired you?
The main credit I want to give to is Harry [Leong, president of the Suns]. Everyone knows him in Chinatown, but he’s a humble guy. I just appreciate him and look up to him, and he’s basically my role model. He inspired me to do all this.
How do you think it impacts today’s generation in Philadelphia?
So the kids, they come from all around Philly now to come have fun and practice. Instead of, on a Friday night, like going out and doing something stupid, they come here to play basketball, build teamwork and do community service. You know, if you come from a small family and a small background, you come out and you learn more socializing, know how to talk to someone, and through basketball and community service you learn about lessons on the court that you could apply outside of the court.
What advice would you give to the younger generation who are just starting out?
One thing that helped me in life that I want to see in them, I’d say, is put yourself in a position that you’re not comfortable with, like chess club or debate team. Just go and put yourself out there, you know, or do things like interview workshops or career builders. I think just doing that kinda helps you open your eyes to see all there is to offer and you can absorb the information and valuable life lessons to apply to life.
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Photos of workshops provided by YDP.